Seeking justice: Sex trafficking triangle produces victims but few convictions

Austin is part of a Texas trafficking triangle from Dallas to Houston to San Antonio. Austin is not a host city, but a hub city according to the Travis County District Attorney's Office. (KEYE TV)

Austin is part of a sex trafficking ring that moves through Dallas, Houston and San Antonio. Unlike those cities, Austin does not have a special prosecution team that handles only trafficking cases. KEYE TV filed open record requests, researched arrest and conviction numbers in Travis County, Austin, San Antonio, Dallas and Houston to find out if sex trafficking victims in Austin are getting justice.

The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children believes 1 in 5 runaways reported to them become victims of sex trafficking. The NCMEC website lists 17 Austin-area teenagers who are reported missing.

"Creative expression has been an essential part of my healing path," said Brooke Axtell with Allies Against Slavery.

Axtell uses art to paint a new layer in the lives of more than 50 women and girls she mentors and supports through Allies Against Slavery. "We have served women as young as 15 and as old as 50," said Axtell.

The messages of shame and isolation are disrupted by a new narrative. "...a sense of hope and possibility," said Axtell.

The city is her canvas and her courtroom. Building a community against slavery gives Axtell justice. Her own trafficker never went to prison. "Unfortunately that's very rare. So survivors have had to decide how to create their own forms of justice," said Axtell.

Austin is part of a Texas trafficking triangle from Dallas to Houston to San Antonio. Austin is not a host city, but a hub city according to the Travis County District Attorney's Office. Traffickers and victims, moving and operating in all the cities or a combination of a few.

Houston has the highest number of trafficking victims according to The Polaris Project which tracks sex trafficking data. According to the Harris County District Attorney's Office, 2,260 total charges were filed against pimps, traffickers and prostitutes. Of that number 235 were trafficking-related including the charges of promotion, aggravated promotion, compelling prostitution, compelling prostitution of a minor, trafficking of a child and trafficking of persons.

According to Travis County Court records, 19 total charges were filed for trafficking-related offenses in Austin in 2015 including promotion of prostitution, aggravated promotion of prostitution, compelling prostitution, compelling the prostitution of a minor and trafficking of persons. The number of arrests for the same charges in previous years include 13 in 2014, 13 in 2013 and 23 in 2012.

The closest point to Austin in the sex trafficking triangle is San Antonio. According to the Bexar County District Attorney's Office it's human trafficking unit had 20 convictions in 2015.

The Travis County District Attorney's Office had three convictions in 2015 and 1 in 2014. There are nine cases pending from 2015 that have indictments or remain open. "The problem is very prevalent in Austin. It's just that discovering it is one of the hardest things we are having to battle right now," said Travis County Assistant District Attorney Amy Meredith who has prosecuted sex traffickers in previous cases.

Identifying cooperating victims has been the greatest hurdle for Travis County prosecutors. The District Attorney's Offices in Dallas, Houston and San Antonio all have Human Trafficking Units with specialized prosecutors, investigators and victim's advocates. Travis County does not. "We as a community need to figure out how to arrest these suspects and successfully prosecute them, not only for the current victims but the future victims," said Meredith.

KEYE TV asked Austin Police Commander Stephen Deaton if the community is doing a good job right now? "I think we are doing a much better job than we were a few years ago," said Commander Deaton.

The Human Trafficking and Vice Unit in APD has eight detectives, of which two are primarily assigned to human trafficking cases. Reports to APD have doubled from 54 in 2013 to 117 in 2015 and Commander Deaton says they have the resources in the department to investigate every report. But when victims don't cooperate, it is hard to make a case. "It takes a victim willing to cooperate to make these cases and that's real difficult," said Commander Deaton.

Advocates like Axtell are working with law enforcement to help track victims, to support them and help provide better tools for law enforcement to prosecute the traffickers. "We will get them the help they need," said ADA Meredith.

Axtell wants every survivor to know, they are more than a number. "That ultimately they get to write the story of their life. That it's their story to tell and that can be a story of hope," said Axtell.

More than 14,000 city workers will be trained this year by police and advocates on how to recognize and report sex trafficking victims in Austin.

Take our brief sex trafficking quiz to test your knowledge and learn how to help:

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