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A Beacon of Hope

How data is reshaping the movement to end human trafficking and the network of everyday Texans driving it.

Published January 19, 2022

This is a story about human trafficking. But not one you’ve heard before.

Some stories are sensational, conjuring stock images of children with duct-taped mouths or Liam Neeson’s “particular set of skills” from Taken. Others are more nuanced and trauma-informed, exploring the complex realities of victims, survivors, and systemic exploitation.

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his is a story about human trafficking. But not one you’ve heard before.

Some stories are sensational, conjuring stock images of children with duct-taped mouths or Liam Neeson’s “particular set of skills” from Taken.
Others are more nuanced and trauma-informed, exploring the complex

Chapter Sections:

6 minute read

Lighthouse is powered by
Allies Against Slavery
an organization harnessing the power of technology, data, and partnerships to protect freedom and dignity.

realities of victims, survivors, and systemic exploitation.

This story is lesser-known.

Human trafficking, sometimes called “modern slavery,” has been around in one form or another since the dawn of civilization. What is unique to the modern context is that traffickers are using technology to exploit people at an unprecedented rate. The internet provides unfettered access into our homes and makes grooming vulnerable individuals easier than ever. 

Yet amid this dangerous new landscape, there is hope. There is a movement of everyday Texans working tirelessly to end trafficking in their state. People like Bryn, meeting a victim for the first time at a gas station. Or Helen, coordinating care for a trafficked 16-year-old who just gave birth. Or Judge Mireles, presiding over cases in her child protection court.

While traffickers are abusing technology to exploit humans, this alliance of professionals uses data and technology for good.

A Grassroots Movement

In the summer of 2010, a small group of concerned citizens began meeting in public libraries and coffee shops in east Austin. With a vision to end human trafficking in their city, they called themselves Allies Against Slavery.

Each month, college students, business owners, social workers, pastors, and a feisty nun in her 70s, sat in creaky wooden chairs under strings of Christmas lights. They ran clothing drives for victims, held training events with law enforcement, and organized film screenings — while continually finding ways to learn from survivors.

The April 2014 meeting of Allies Against Slavery at Space12 on Austin’s east side. At these monthly gatherings, members shared stories about mentoring teen moms at local high schools or planned events like the first annual Slave-Free City Summit.  (Image courtesy of Stephen Henderson)

“Allies did a lot of great things to support local survivors and raise awareness,” Allies Against Slavery President and CEO John Nehme recalls. But the growing movement faced challenges. People burned out, resources were scarce, and misinformation proliferated. There was often confusion about who was exploited and disagreements about what victims needed. “We kept asking ourselves if we were actually getting closer to ending human trafficking,” John remembers. “And we couldn’t answer that question with any sort of integrity.”

After participating in social justice work in places like Central America, London, and Australia, John returned to Austin to make a documentary about domestic sex trafficking. The stories John was hearing from survivors of trafficking hit close to home. As a teenager, one of his family members became a victim of sexual violence.

Motivated by a deep faith that recognizes the inherent dignity of every human being, John led Allies as a volunteer for three years before giving it nonprofit status in 2014.

Allies joined the Central Texas Coalition Against Human Trafficking (CTCAHT), a network for field professionals serving victims and survivors. As they moved into a leadership capacity, Allies aspired to enhance collaboration and surface more insights from service providers and survivors. 

Fostering a network of 65 agencies across the area was challenging. Answers were hard to come by. Yet most partners voiced a similar concern: How do they better identify victims?

“Ultimately, we couldn’t solve a problem we couldn’t see,” John recalls the moment of clarity. “We needed to get our arms around what was going on from a data and information standpoint, then talk about how to solve the issue.”

Allies Against Slavery President and CEO John Nehme outside Space 12, a former home for Allies’ grassroots events from 2012 to 2015.

A Government Priority

Texas passed its first human trafficking law in 2003, quickly following the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) in 2000. At first, the field focused on the sex trafficking of foreign-born victims because they were easier to identify, and many services were already available. Professionals didn’t yet know to look for victims in their own proverbial backyard, in places like youth shelters or substance use rehabilitation facilities.

The TVPA made it illegal to elicit sex from children by giving them money, food, or shelter. Still, children involved in the sex trade were routinely arrested and put in jail. Slowly but surely, agencies became more aware of child sex trafficking, but the state lacked the capacity or programs to effectively serve victims. Many slipped through cracks in the system without being identified or getting services.

The headquarters of the Child Sex Trafficking Team can be found behind the unassuming walls of the State Insurance Building, nestled in the southeast corner of the Capitol Complex in Austin. The team leads Governor Abbott’s innovative multi-prong strategy to end child sex trafficking.  

In 2015, the 84th Legislature took steps to fill those gaps in care and created Governor Abbott’s Child Sex Trafficking Team (CSTT). Tasked with coordinating a holistic response to child sex trafficking in Texas, one of the first challenges the new team faced was quantifying the problem. They turned to the University of Texas at Austin and Allies, who had recently received state funding to produce the first statewide prevalence study of human trafficking.

“Ultimately, we couldn’t solve a problem we couldn’t see or measure.”

John Nehme, Allies Against Slavery

Led by the School of Social Work’s Institute on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault (IDVSA) and the Bureau of Business Research, the research team published Human Trafficking by the Numbers in early 2017. The study estimated that 79,000 children and youth are victims of sex trafficking. But the study also suggested only a small fraction of them are identified and connected to the proper services. 

“Few states have this kind of insight into the number of people being exploited,” says IDVSA Director Noël Busch-Armendariz, who led the study. “And more importantly, each count reflects a human being living among us. Our findings certainly give us all a call to action.”

While the study answered some questions, it opened many more and proved how difficult it was to estimate the number of youth trafficked. The research team encountered an information landscape that was often messy and incoherent. They needed reliable information to reveal those most impacted by the issue — the victims.

It was clear field professionals needed a screening tool to proactively identify victims. And a technical solution to help gather and visualize data for the state.

Bruce Kellison and Matt Kammer-Kerwick of the University of Texas at Austin’s Bureau of Business Research (IC2 Institute), alongside Noël Busch-Armendariz of the Steve Hicks School of Social Work. After leading the initial study, the trio and their departments have since conducted additional CSTT-commissioned research to further understand child sex trafficking.

A Technological Epiphany

Years of research, community work, and listening to stakeholders culminated in an idea to build a unique technology platform that addresses the challenges of the movement: Lighthouse.

“It was an epiphany moment,” John recalls, holding a tablet in his hands. With a quick gesture, he opens the software. “We decided to create a mechanism for seeing the people who are experiencing the problem, their needs, and then producing a reliable data stream to guide professionals.”

It’s a digital space where professionals can identify victims of sex trafficking and better understand the care they need. A tool where partnering organizations can view dynamic maps indicating what trafficking looks like and the gaps in response across Texas. It’s a pivotal new instrument for those who want to end human trafficking in their lifetime.

Bruce Kellison and Matt Kammer-Kerwick of the University of Texas at Austin’s Bureau of Business Research (IC2 Institute), alongside Noël Busch-Armendariz of the Steve Hicks School of Social Work. After leading the initial study, the trio and their departments have since conducted additional CSTT-commissioned research to further understand child sex trafficking.

Allies Against Slavery team members Tally Jorn (center left), John Nehme, and Torey Tipton (center right) providing a tutorial of the Lighthouse platform. (Image courtesy of John Davidson)

Chapter One

Identifying Victims

A Case for Screening

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t’s 5:30 a.m. in Hidalgo County near the Texas-Mexico border. A forensic interviewer has just used Lighthouse to identify a potential victim of sex trafficking. She picks up the phone to make a call. Over two thousand miles away on the southern banks of Washington’s Puget Sound, Rosita Resmondo clicks on a lamp before answering. This is a typical start to her day. 

It’s 5:30 a.m. in Hidalgo County near the Texas-Mexico border. A forensic interviewer has just used Lighthouse to identify a potential victim of sex trafficking. She picks up the phone to make a call. Over two thousand miles away on the southern banks of Washington’s Puget Sound, Rosita Resmondo clicks on a lamp before answering. This is a typical start to her day. 

Rosita is the care coordinator and administrative assistant at the Children’s Advocacy Center of Hidalgo and Starr Counties (CACHSC). The CACHSC provides a variety of services for children in South Texas who have experienced abuse or neglect. 

Previously living in Texas, Rosita now coordinates remotely with the organization’s team of fifty, including medical staff, forensic interviewers, counselors, and case managers. She also communicates with partners, such as law enforcement, state services, and the victims’ families. It’s tiresome work. Yet, even at a distance, Rosita doesn’t let it slow her down.

The CACHSC’s Edinburg location, 15 miles north of the Rio Grande. The building is tenderly called Estrella’s House, in memory of Estrella Rojas, a 2-year-old tragically killed due to abuse. As a result, the Child Advocacy Center was formed in 2000 to be a child-friendly haven where young victims are not afraid to share their stories.

Rosita describes her day-to-day communications: “Calls from our medical department figuring out what the next steps are, and then, very quickly, a call from a Texas Ranger saying, ‘we just recovered a kiddo.’” Her phone rings again, interrupting her. “Hold on just a second. I gotta take this call. It’s my forensic interviewer.”

Rosita speaks compassionately, knowledgeably, and warmly. She’s acquired these traits through a varied career, including a long stint as a Child Protective Services (CPS) investigator. “I want to be able to give a kid a voice, even if it’s just for an hour,” Rosita says about her work. “I can’t promise a child that everything is going to be okay, but letting that kid know that we’re there, that’s powerful.” Without skipping a beat, she adds, “I plan to do it much longer if I can keep coloring my hair.” Her humorous quips ease her long days engaging with the darkest edges of society.

Amidst the mesquites and palms of the lower Rio Grande Valley stands the unassuming brick house where children talk about their abuse. Past the porch full of white rocking chairs and down colorful, winding hallways, there is a small room monitored by cameras. Here, trained CACHSC staff conduct forensic interviews, asking open-ended questions and collecting information on the child’s history. Listening on the other side of the wall are staff, law enforcement, CPS, and the District Attorney’s office (DA), ready to develop appropriate next steps.

Everything hinges on this moment of communication. But for any survivor of abuse, it takes space and time to find adequate words for their experiences. Memories are shrouded by symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Maybe the victim knows someone involved that they don’t want to betray, like a parent. Victims of sex trafficking endure an added layer of complexity and circumstances that are usually difficult to identify.

Forensic Interviewer Cassie Cruz checks the CACHSC’s forensic interview audio and visual recording equipment. In a space adjacent to the interviewing room, CACHSC staff and representatives from law enforcement, CPS, and the DA monitor and collaborate to determine the appropriate actions for the case and for the child’s healing.

Even as seasoned investigators, Rosita and her team at the CACHSC were not trained to recognize the intricacies of sex trafficking. “We often found these cases, and we would put them in the bucket of universal sexual abuse,” Rosita says, wondering how many children over the years she missed.

Screening to ‘See It’

Coming off the heels of the Human Trafficking by the Numbers study, Allies Against Slavery was ready to leverage Lighthouse to establish a statewide data standard for identifying sex trafficking.

Allies teamed up with WestCoast Children’s Clinic, who had built and validated a screening tool called the CSE-IT, the Commercial Sexual Exploitation Identification Tool. The CSE-IT (pronounced “see it”) was designed from the input of survivors and professionals to improve the early identification of commercial sexual exploitation.

“We had invested in a technology and data solution, and WestCoast had invested in validating a sex trafficking screener. And that’s why the partnership worked well.” John explains the benefits of integrating CSE-IT into Allies’ technology platform. In addition to identification, Lighthouse was also built to solve information management challenges for field professionals. It allows professionals to view data in real-time, easily document client interactions, and ensure a record can be seen by others in an organization, even if there is high staff turnover.

In 2020, Allies Against Slavery trained the CACHSC on recognizing trafficking and using Lighthouse to identify victims efficiently. Rosita confesses to initial concerns about universal screening, specifically finding extra time to learn a new platform. But Lighthouse was designed to work in the broadest number of situations for the greatest number of people. In just a few minutes, Rosita’s team can determine if a child is a “clear concern,” the highest level of risk for sexual exploitation based on the number and severity of indicators identified.

Screening to Maintain Connection

Far north of the border, just past the “heart” of Texas, Bryn Stonehouse finds herself in unusual places. Bryn works at Regional Victim Crisis Center (RVCC) in Abilene, serving anyone impacted by violent crimes. Between fielding emergencies, therapy sessions, and coordinating services for victims, Bryn is dedicated to RVCC’s anti-trafficking efforts. Since June 2020, Lighthouse has become a central tool in her work. 

Screening around the clock at locations like emergency rooms, restaurants, or the county jail, Bryn may only have minutes with a potential victim. Hardly convenient circumstances to navigate, especially without a way to easily access and keep track of data.

“We were just filling [the CSE-IT] out on paper and then entering it into the system,” Bryn explains the inefficient screening workflow before Lighthouse.

Because of bandwidth bottlenecks, they had to be selective, only screening children with recognizable red flags.

Bryn Stonehouse outside the emergency room entrance of Abilene’s Hendrick Medical Center. The hospital’s sexual assault nurse examiners routinely call Bryn to help assess and screen patients for human trafficking. 

Now RVCC screens everyone, conducting CSE-IT screenings in Lighthouse quickly and securely anywhere there is Wi-Fi. “It made it so much more simple for us to screen,” Bryn says. “As well as keep all of our screenings in one place.”

Bryn Stonehouse outside the emergency room entrance of Abilene’s Hendrick Medical Center. The hospital’s sexual assault nurse examiners routinely call Bryn to help assess and screen patients for human trafficking. 

To date, the RVCC has completed 456 screenings in Lighthouse, with 33 cases showing up as clear concern and 53 as “possible concern” — the second-highest level of risk for exploitation and trafficking. Bryn shares that while identifying victims has gotten easier, maintaining contact with a victim can still be very difficult. It’s not uncommon for victims to start services and then suddenly disappear.

At times, victims may get activated and don’t feel safe enough to form new trusting relationships. Or they run back to their trafficker with whom they have a bond and a sense of familiarity. The situation is one they’ve come to know. Even if it may be unsafe to stay, they might fear the consequences of leaving. 

Each time a child receives services, a professional can add to the individual’s screening history in Lighthouse. There are no duplicate records for the same individuals who come to the same organization multiple times — making the client easier to recognize and get to know. For Bryn, being informed helps her quickly connect with her clients, expediting the relationship-building process that is so vital.

Screening for Clarity

Back at the CACHSC, Executive Director Jesús Sanchez opens the Lighthouse dashboard. His kind, bespectacled eyes scan the organization’s statistical information on sex trafficking in Hidalgo and Starr counties since June 2020. “We’ve conducted 1,500 screenings, and about 3% of those assessments were clear concern.” That’s 45 children identified in a matter of months. Imagine if the screenings had started 20 years ago when the center first opened its doors.

A numbers guy, Jesús started in the finance department in 2009, where he was one of only ten employees. Since becoming director, Jesús has almost doubled the services available for children. In 2020 alone, there were 1,765 forensic interviews, 181 medical exams, and 152 crisis interventions. One step inside the building, and those numbers overwhelmingly come to life. A sea of colorful painted hands dot the walls, bearing the names and ages of every child who has walked its hallways.

The vibrant interiors of Estrella’s House, the CACHSC’s Edinburg location. The Child Advocacy Center welcomed its first child in 2001. Since then, every child who visits the center has contributed their handprint, name, and age to the walls. With over 22,000 children seen over the last 20 years, wall space is diminishing.

Jesús Sanchez on the porch of Estrella’s House. From this location, Jesús directs over 50 staff members across three locations: Edinburg, Mission, and Roma. With a universal screening policy in place, the CACHSC leads all other Texas agencies in the volume of screenings conducted.

“We use the walls to help them be comfortable. We tell the children, ‘do you see anyone that has your name?’” Jesús says, walking past a blue handprint with “Jesús, 11” scrawled underneath in black Sharpie. There are two other “Jesús” handprints clustered outside of his office door. The names are a sobering reminder for Jesús to continually put himself in the shoes of the children the CACHSC serves.

In this spirit, Jesús and Rosita use Lighthouse to direct the team’s resources while educating the board of directors and potential grantors about trafficking’s impact in their area. Rosita says that in an ever-changing landscape, Lighthouse’s reporting is a guiding light: “I can pull data quickly at a click of a mouse and know what we’re really talking about.”

Jesús Sanchez on the porch of Estrella’s House. From this location, Jesús directs over 50 staff members across three locations: Edinburg, Mission, and Roma. With a universal screening policy in place, the CACHSC leads all other Texas agencies in the volume of screenings conducted.

In some cases, the statistics and stories they encounter reshape how the community understands victims. Recently, an 8-year-old boy added his handprint to the wall when he screened as a clear concern, overturning typical expectations of who victims of sex trafficking are. The screening led to further investigation, resulting in the arrests of his exploiters — his mother and her boyfriend.

Since May 2020, Lighthouse has conducted 10,871 screenings across Texas, resulting in 3,485 clear concern scores. Over 120 organizations and 1500 field professionals utilize the platform. A sexual assault nurse examiner (SANE) files a new CSE-IT when discovering newly visible indicators during a medical exam. A therapists completes a screening when fresh disclosures are made in a session. A caseworker quickly views a child’s file, so the child doesn’t become re-victimized by repeating their story. All of these successful interactions mean that children are now visible in ways that they were not before. 

Screening for Next Steps

Identification is only the beginning of the story. It leads to a cascade of actions in the spheres of justice and care. Both the child identified and the professionals who serve them now face new challenges.

“A couple of weeks ago, we were able to identify a fourteen-year-old that gave birth,” Rosita says, adding that the young woman was unaware of being trafficked. As a survivor, she now faces a long road of recovery. She needs support for her and her newborn — a place to live, furniture, food, baby items, counseling, medical services.

The next big question for the CACHSC team is how to coordinate all of those needs for every survivor of trafficking. Rosita isn’t the only one asking that question.

Chapter Two

Coordinating Care

A Sanctuary for Survivors

Just off Interstate 10 on San Antonio’s east side sits the Harvey E. Najim Children and Family Center. Patches of purple verbena and sandstone picnic tables are scattered serenely along Salado Creek for visitors who may be experiencing their most turbulent moments. The state-of-the-art center is home to CPS and law enforcement offices, the Youth Center of Texas, and Bexar County’s Child Advocacy Center, known as ChildSafe.

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ust off Interstate 10 on San Antonio’s east side sits the Harvey E. Najim Children and Family Center. Patches of purple verbena and sandstone picnic tables are scattered serenely along Salado Creek for visitors who may be experiencing their most turbulent moments. The state-of-the-art center is home to CPS, law enforcement, the Youth Center of Texas, and Bexar County’s Child Advocacy Center, known as ChildSafe.

Helen Browning, ChildSafe’s director of care coordination, steps briskly past the glass-walled administrative offices to her desk. She’s just been notified that a child referred from the children’s hospital had screened clear concern with Lighthouse. 

Within 24-72 hours, Helen will gather a multidisciplinary team of service providers and investigators for a rapid response meeting — one of the first steps towards recovery for an identified victim of trafficking.

Harvey E. Najim Children and Family Center, the tranquil home to ChildSafe and other children-focused agencies. Connecting to the Salado Creek Greenway, the 43,000 square-foot campus is a restorative respite for both its clients and team members. The center houses therapy spaces, transitional housing, rooftop gardens, nature paths, and even a ropes course.

Helen Browning in ChildSafe’s administrative offices. After an 11-year tenure at CPS, Helen now directs ChildSafe’s care coordinator team while training numerous communities on care coordination implementation.

 

It Takes a Village

Once a victim is identified, a high-stakes series of events unfold over the following hours and days. What happens in these earliest moments of a survivor’s journey out of a life of exploitation can significantly impact their healing. Many victims are identified and recovered in crisis situations, requiring first responders and immediate medical attention to ensure their physical safety. Others need a safe place to sleep, a warm meal, mental health services, or substance use treatment.

The trauma they’ve experienced at the hands of traffickers — or negative experiences with law enforcement or service providers in the past — form the complicated context for these initial interactions between survivors and those who serve them.

At this stage of recovery, a fragmented response can lead to victims falling through the cracks in a broken system. But communities in Texas are now pioneering a new approach to assist survivors and defeat this vicious cycle: care coordination.

“Care coordination was developed as a multidisciplinary approach to empower exploited youth into survivors and, through services, eventually thrivers,” Helen explains. Created to foster collaboration across service providers and reduce the duplication of efforts, it removes the burden on survivors to maneuver the myriad of services and organizations. The model ensures that provider response is survivor-centered, trauma-informed, and coordinated for maximum support. 

Helen Browning in ChildSafe’s administrative offices. After an 11-year tenure at CPS, Helen now directs ChildSafe’s care coordinator team while training numerous communities on care coordination implementation.

That level of focus takes the proverbial village: drop-in centers, therapists, legal advocates, child abuse doctors, Commercially Sexually Exploited Youth (CSEY) advocates, substance abuse programs, child support, CPS. Prosecutors and law enforcement are also involved since care coordination not only strengthens and provides services but contributes to investigations and the prosecution of exploiters.

Hover to read about care coordination team members

As a pediatrician specializing in child abuse, Dr. Lora Spiller oversees the Children’s Hospital of San Antonio’s (CHOSA) forensic nurse examiners, caring for patients within 120 hours of being sexually assaulted. Leveraging training, she refers patients who show signs of trafficking to ChildSafe. But her involvement in the care plan continues. At CHOSA’s Center of Miracles, she also provides non-acute medical services for trafficking survivors, like testing for late-presenting sexually-transmitted diseases. “Their treatment is very similar,” Dr. Spiller compares child sexual abuse and trafficking patient treatment. “However, they tend to have more dependency on illicit substances, more significant mental health concerns, and unique challenges in accessing necessary health care.”

As a CSEY advocate at Rape Crisis Center, Joey Surovy offers a consistent, supportive relationship for survivors and case management throughout their care plan — up until their 22nd birthday, if needed. Once a child is identified as a clear concern, care coordinators at ChildSafe assign a CSEY advocate to voice the survivor’s needs through the complex process. “My clients are on this path to healing...they make all the decisions, but I’m their guide,” Joey conveys his mission. “I stay next to them to make sure they stay on the track they want to follow.”

Beatriz “Ms. Bea” Webb is a clinical therapist at ChildSafe, assisting survivors of trafficking as they navigate tangled traumatic experiences. She contributes a trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy lens to a survivor’s care plan. While therapy can be challenging for survivors, Ms. Bea suggests it’s merited: “It’s also about healing and bringing happiness where there was a lot of pain.”

Roy Maas Youth Alternatives’ Centro Seguro drop-in center, led by Chuck Paul (right) and Julie Strentzsch (left), provides youth beds, food, clothing, and immediate crisis intervention 24-hours a day. As a Lighthouse partner, they actively identify and refer trafficking victims to ChildSafe. They also participate in care coordination, assisting survivors through counseling, job placement, or transitional housing. “We’re trying to stay connected with them so that if they need anything, they know they can reach out to us...or we’re going to reach out to them.”

The care coordination team works together to tailor specific plans for each child. “We’ve learned that we can throw a hundred services at people,” Helen explains, “but if we don’t make a clear path, they’re going to stay in the same place.” The path of care isn’t linear. It fluctuates as a child unravels layers of trauma and moves through different stages of healing. 

A new, collaborative position was designed to manage this process and team: the care coordinator.

“Kids make connections in different ways with different people. That’s why there are lots of different people providing help. Not everybody can be that one size fits all for everyone.”

Julie Strentzsch, Roy Maas Youth Alternatives

A Harmonized Response

Care coordinators juggle many responsibilities: assigning a CSEY advocate to a survivor, training a service partner, reporting data to ChildSafe’s executive board. But a coordinator’s primary function is to lead the care coordination team through a series of response and planning meetings that focus on stabilizing and empowering survivors to retake control of their lives.

“The need of survivors will wax and wane, become cool and hot depending on triggers and stages of change,” Helen explains how the process and team may fluctuate. But the coordinator remains a consistent point of contact throughout, diligently working to take pressure off survivors. “When we don’t work in harmony, we cause chaos for the survivor,” Helen expounds. “And they’re coming out of chaos.”

But it wasn’t that long ago that CSEY advocates, care coordinators, and a statewide model didn’t exist. Survivors shouldered the weight of directing their own care.

Weaving a Statewide Safety Net

Back in Austin, members of the CSTT can review ChildSafe care coordination measures in Lighthouse. On most weeks, CSTT staff are more likely found in the field rather than behind a desk at their headquarters near the Capitol. 

Yet in the age of remote work, Lighthouse has enabled their team to easily collaborate with partners in every far-flung corner of the state. As a convener and funder, the CSTT plays a lead role co-creating program impact goals with agencies like ChildSafe.

Mementos like this inspire leaders in the anti-trafficking movement who recognize the rare opportunity they have to influence change at this scale. With 79 grantees receiving funds from the CSTT and over 130 organizations using Lighthouse, the “Texas Model” for ending child sex trafficking is gaining national recognition.

Care coordination is the heartbeat of the CSTT’s larger multi-pronged strategy to build a safety net for survivors. It can take six months to a year to launch a care coordination team. Each one is locally managed, shaped by varying resources and cultures.

In the early days of establishing care coordination, partners had to rely on anecdotal evidence and field experience. Before Lighthouse, they shared stories of what worked well and what didn’t work well, but there wasn’t an easy way to determine what were the essential elements of success.

Shining a Light

Gathered around a projection screen in ChildSafe’s conference room, Helen pilots her advisory council through the Lighthouse care coordination dashboard that tracks her team’s performance. Since ChildSafe became a partner in 2020, they have utilized the platform to answer a litany of coordination questions.

How many children were screened as clear concern in Bexar County last month? What indicators and vulnerabilities were most prevalent? What was the demographic breakdown of those screenings? How many children are currently in care coordination? What organizations referred them? Where are they being placed? Are they staying safe or running from service providers?

Based on this insight, the coordinators and advisory councils interpret how effectively the care coordination team is operating, discuss resource allocation, and identify opportunities for improvement.

Helen Browning reviewing performance measures with ChildSafe’s coordinators. Lighthouse’s dashboard visualizes her county’s care coordination data, informing how the team and advisory council strengthen their support for survivors.

Dismantling Silos

Helen speaks passionately about the potential impact of real-time data and efficient coordination. “No one’s crossing over each other,” she remarks. “Service providers are coming out of their silos.” 

Cooperation hasn’t always been a strength for the movement. Concerns about client privacy and laws protecting personal information have made some service providers hesitant to share information and resources, operating in silos as a result. 

Though Lighthouse uses industry-leading security and encryption, it still comes down to trust at the end of the day. Where that trust and data sharing exists, partners are better equipped.

“When you look at the overall data for the state of Texas, you’re able to see that Bexar County is not alone in this fight against trafficking,” Helen says about Lighthouse’s care coordination dashboard. “When all of us around the state are working in collaboration for those we serve, our youth are guaranteed to win.”

More to the Story

Numbers come alive when they are connected to stories, especially the real-world experiences of survivors and field professionals. At the same time, quality improvement in care coordination cannot be based on one child’s experience, even if cases have similar circumstances. Without data to provide the larger context, the stories are one-off events that are impossible to evaluate. 

Lighthouse users can join stories with trending data to get a more robust narrative. The platform helps educate service providers, connecting the dots from what the data says to what that means for services. Those data-driven epiphanies have the power to shift on-the-ground programming.

The light bulb moments are not only illuminating best practices for service providers and care coordinators. Understanding the bigger story of what trafficking looks like across Texas is catalyzing systemic change in the Lone Star State.

Chapter Three

Understanding Trends

Systemic Change

Thorny mesquite brush partly obscure a smuggling route that winds along the Rio Grande shoreline. Drugs and people are transported across the murky, waist-high water — one of the borderland realities of life around Laredo.

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horny mesquite brush partly obscure a smuggling route that winds along the Rio Grande shoreline. Drugs and people are transported across the murky, waist-high water — one of the borderland realities of life around Laredo.

Locals aren’t strangers to the complexities that come with living near the border. Rocket-propelled grenades could be seen flying during a recent cartel skirmish south of town.

Here, human smuggling (gaining illegal entry into the country) can entangle with human trafficking (forced labor or commercial sexual exploitation). The line between the two issues is not always clear, and inaccurate media coverage can fuel misconceptions, overshadowing other types of cases. 

One case recounted by local service providers involved a mother dressing her teenage son as a girl and sexually exploiting him to a Minnesotan trucker for money. When case managers arrived on the scene to recover the child, it took them forty-five minutes to find the kid in a small trailer. He was hiding inside a bed mattress.

Nuevo Laredo and the Gateway to the Americas International Bridge as seen from the Laredo’s side of the Rio Grande. Professionals here are well-acquainted with the complex realities of border life. Yet a deep connection to the place they call home motivates them to serve South Texas. 

In a state that spans 270,000 square miles, large-scale programs must account for unique regional characteristics and diverse cultures. That’s why the CSTT locally stationed five regional administrators to guide the implementation of their statewide strategic plan. 

Regional administrators encourage a comprehensive response to trafficking by participating in public and private partnerships, training stakeholders, and problem solving gaps in care across multiple systems in their area. Responsible for anywhere from 30-50 counties, their work mirrors that of care coordinators but on a macro scale

To make sense of changing conditions and strengthen the response to exploitation, they need to quickly see and take action on trends across their assigned regions. That kind of real-time insight wasn’t possible until now.

Becky Austen reviewing Lighthouse’s trend dashboard. After a fruitful career at IBM, she planned a retirement filled with volunteer work and playing music. However, Becky was so compelled by Allies’ mission that she switched gears and joined the Lighthouse team in 2019.

Visualizing Trends

Allies knew that screening and care coordination data had the power to contribute to a larger story, but it was incomplete. Additional information sources were needed to give context and round out the narrative: arrests, convictions, federal trafficking cases, demand from sex ads and illicit businesses, community vulnerabilities, and socio-economic data.

Becky Austen reviewing Lighthouse’s trend dashboard. After a fruitful career at IBM, she planned a retirement filled with volunteer work and playing music. However, Becky was so compelled by Allies’ mission that she switched gears and joined the Lighthouse team in 2019.

With a grant from the CSTT, Allies set out to expand Lighthouse as a statewide data platform, combining existing and new data sources to create a multi-dimensional picture of trafficking across Texas.

To achieve the scale and scope envisioned, Allies appointed Becky Austen to the role of Lighthouse director. Over thirty years of IBM experience leading teams in a global technology company positioned Becky to grow the platform and vet technology partners.

Becky recalls their developer quest: “We were searching for a partner who shared our values and had the expertise to really understand the work.” They found that type of partner with AnnieCannons.

AnnieCannons transforms survivors of human trafficking and gender-based violence into software engineers. The Oakland-based organization trains survivors in high-demand technology skills, links them to competitively paid work, and facilitates survivor-led technologies.

John Nehme first met Laura Hackney, AnnieCannons’ CEO and co-founder, while attending the Freedom From Slavery Forum in 2016. The two developed a mutual respect and vision of how technology can combat trafficking. When Allies was selecting a technical partner to expand Lighthouse, AnnieCannons was a clear choice to ensure that survivors influence the platform designed to end human trafficking in Texas. 

Allies forged new data-sharing partnerships and gathered requirements from stakeholders, while AnnieCannons architected a secure and scalable database. Together they designed prototypes, which AnnieCannons turned into visualizations. Led by Grace McCants, AnnieCannons’ director of product, the team of survivor-developers advised on features and shared insights about the data throughout the process.

Laura Hackey leading a website development workshop at AnnieCannons’ headquarters in Oakland, California. A team of AnnieCannons software engineers collaborated with Allies to expand Lighthouse’s capabilities to visualize data. (Image courtesy of AnnieCannons)

Months of focused collaboration produced a platform with visualizations, analysis, and trends in Lighthouse. The platform includes interactive maps, dashboards, charts, and filters, giving users control as they explore and make new discoveries in the data. 

For instance, Lighthouse trends may reveal a higher number of trafficking and prostitution arrests in a county, but relatively low numbers of CSE-IT screenings, suggesting a gap in victim identification. Groups like the CSTT can use that insight to encourage more screening in that specific community.

“Having survivors participate in all levels of the building of the product, from user experience design to the actual development work, is a game-changer.”

Laura Hackney, AnnieCannons

Trends to Forge Partnerships

The movement to end child sex trafficking is quietly gaining momentum across South Texas. There is no better example than a recent summit organized by the Children’s Advocacy Center of Hidalgo and Starr Counties (CACHSC). Alongside Jesús and Rosita from CACHSC, the CSTT gathered as many agencies as possible across the two counties to launch a multi-tiered response to trafficking.

Hidalgo is a beacon for South Texas. The CAC has completed more screenings than any other organization in the state. With Lighthouse powering these screenings and regional trends, CACHSC and others can strategically evaluate their impact and respond to emerging challenges.

Lighthouse has also revealed that many victims in South Texas are identified through the criminal justice system, suggesting more resources are being directed toward detainment instead of survivor services. To offset this, Julia Rubio and Judge Mireles supported the founding of the Trafficking Emergency Network, a trauma-informed group of judges, attorneys, and psychologists in Laredo dedicated to identifying trafficking in their fields of work.

Julia Rubio is the Chief Prosecutor for the Special Victims Unit in the Webb County District Attorney’s Office. As an active participant in the Trafficking Emergency Network, she helps law enforcement partners shift from criminalizing victims to helping victims address underlying trauma. Recently, she presented with Judge Mireles and the CSTT at the United Nations virtual summit on the importance of developing coordinated strategies to address the issues of child sexual exploitation.

Utilizing Lighthouse’s data visualization dashboard, network partners review the region’s latest trafficking trends — guiding them to administer more nuanced judgments and services. Since South Texas has different indicators of exploitation that are more prevalent, such as substance use issues or lack of caregiver supervision, it is helpful to compare trends at the local, county, and state level.

Trends to Address Gaps

Far from the streets of Laredo, partners in North Texas use Lighthouse to identify vulnerable children who don’t fit what professionals might deem a typical victim profile. 

The platform helps users interpret vast amounts of information that can be difficult to contextualize. They rely on the data visualizations in Lighthouse to see and respond to emerging regional trends — sometimes finding discrepancies.

Males are disproportionately represented in the Texas Juvenile Justice System (TJJD), meaning more males are screened than females. Yet females across TJJD showed a much higher prevalence of clear concern screenings compared to males, who made up only 9% of clear concern screenings in North Texas. Statewide numbers in Lighthouse, however, revealed males make up about 12% of all clear concerns. 

The aggregated data challenged partners in North Texas to ask why they were missing victims who identify as male during screenings. Perhaps males have different indicators than victims who identify as females?

Based on this hypothesis, the CSTT is hard at work implementing new strategies to ensure more equitable identification. With input from survivors, they have modified existing training for stakeholders to better recognize and respond in a trauma-informed way to victims, including those who identify as male. The result helped TJJD train staff and screen to get the best possible results with their population, and also led to the creation of the state’s first home for male victims of sexual exploitation. 

Trends to Shape Policy

The House Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence grows restless listening to hours of public testimony in the fluorescent-lit basement chamber of the Texas Capitol. Torey Tipton steps up to the podium as her name is called, printed testimony in hand, to address the row of tired representatives. As Allies’ managing director, Torey knows the statistics she’s sharing from Lighthouse are critical to passing House Bill 1540, which increases protections for children housed in residential treatment centers.

Residential treatment centers (RTCs) provide counseling, health, and educational services to children and young adults experiencing substance abuse. Lighthouse revealed that at least one-third of RTC clients screen at the highest level of trafficking vulnerability. “This means those children in their care have demonstrated numerous risk factors for sex trafficking at the severest level,” Torey says. Traffickers know this and target RTCs as places to lure youth into the sex trade. 

Torey Tipton in the Texas House of Representative Chambers. During the 87th Texas Legislative session, Torey leveraged her masters in public administration and policy experience to testify with Lighthouse data in support of several successful measures, including House Bill 1540 and 1005.

Governor Abbott signing several new anti-trafficking laws in 2021 alongside representatives and advocates, including Allies’ Torey Tipton.

The successful passing of House Bill 1540 increases protections within a 1-mile radius of RTCs, such as allowing law enforcement to stop and search suspicious persons. “Think of it like a bubble around a building,” Torey describes the new defensive measures. 

While this is the first session where Lighthouse was used to make state policy more data-informed, Allies sees tremendous potential to leverage the platform in future sessions. Their goal is to build upon the success of the 87th Texas Legislative session to get data quickly and make it understandable for legislators.

Governor Abbott signing several new anti-trafficking laws in 2021 alongside representatives and advocates, including Allies’ Torey Tipton.

Setting a National Standard

No other state has done quite what Texas has done; certainly not at the same scale, bringing to bear so many different stakeholders, services, and data. 

Screening for sex trafficking is being standardized across the state. Care coordination is strengthening the safety net for survivors and helping them navigate recovery. And for the first time, trends and insights from Lighthouse are powering comprehensive changes.

There are still many obstacles to overcome, but one thing is clear: Texas is setting an example for other states to follow.

 

A photo memorializing a day making Valentine’s crafts with a group of survivors. The image serves as a reminder that behind the data, policies, and programs, individual lives are changed because of this work. 

 

Moving Forward

The Road Ahead

The evening sun tucks behind Austin’s skyline as the Allies team wraps their last Zoom meeting of the day. It was the fourth call this quarter about data sharing with the same agency, and little progress to show for it. “Well, I need some queso after that,” one of them quips to make light of the frustrating situation.

T

he evening sun tucks behind Austin’s skyline as the Allies team wraps their last Zoom meeting of the day. It was the fourth call this quarter about data sharing with the same agency, and little progress to show for it. “Well, I need some queso after that,” one of them quips to make light of the frustrating situation.

Some days, advancing the Allies’ mission feels like one step forward, two steps back. On any given week, the team has grown accustomed to facing a variety of challenges.

Funding cuts close programs and shutter careers. Barriers to sharing information are erected in the name of privacy. There is record growth in online child sexual abuse material. Funding and capacity limitations deprioritize labor trafficking interventions.

The work itself is hard enough, not to mention the self-described “small-but-mighty” team of seven operates on a lean budget. There are high levels of professional burnout in a field where too many organizations are chronically under-resourced.

The Allies team at their east Austin offices. Weekly team meetings range from releasing Lighthouse software updates to identifying the “root causes” and risks for trafficking.

Rising to the Challenge

While the road ahead is long, Allies remains optimistic. They believe the anti-trafficking movement is on the cusp of change. As human trafficking evolves, those working to end it must be vigilant and continuously improve how they identify victims, care for survivors, and understand trends. Technology like Lighthouse will be critical to cross-country efforts, since the platform improves as it is used by more people in more places.

That looks like expanding into Louisiana — the newest state to adopt Lighthouse — because traffickers don’t respect state boundaries or federal jurisdictions. It also looks like continually adding new sources to the platform, any information that can uncover fresh insights. This expansion of Lighthouse allows the movement to stay one step ahead of traffickers, which is the ultimate goal: preventing exploitation before it starts. 

“Trafficking is not just a Texas issue, it's universal. We're building Lighthouse as a solution that can help many other communities.”

Becky Austen, Allies Against Slavery

From Crisis to Causes

These days, it’s common to hear about prevention. But, if you’re around the Allies team for more than five minutes, you’re likely to hear another word as well: prediction. “We can prevent the problems we can predict,” John explains, comparing it to how the social vulnerability index measures the potential impact of a natural disaster on a community. “What prediction allows us to do is tailor what the prevention strategy needs to be because it’s going to be different in different places.”

The field can now make new connections in the data that might not have been apparent before, understanding how those disparate elements impact each other. The result of that analysis leads to targeted prevention efforts — solutions to remedy specific “root causes” of trafficking where you live. 

For instance, truancy was often viewed as an isolated issue and not linked to sex trafficking. But Lighthouse revealed that it is one of the top 10 most prevalent indicators for children who have been screened as clear concern for sex trafficking. School administrators are now shifting their thinking from “those are just problem kids skipping school” to “those are vulnerable kids who might experience trafficking and exploitation.” School districts with high truancy rates can then hire more social support staff as a specific strategy to prevent trafficking.

Action items are captured during a weekly team meeting discussing updates to Lighthouse. The latest version of the platform includes a risk and resiliency model, ranking every county in Texas.

Beacons of Hope

“We aren’t just collecting data for data’s sake” is a mantra at the Allies office. They are collecting information that changes the way the work is done on the ground, hopefully preventing untold individual suffering and costs to society. “We’ve always asked this about any of our work, will the person who’s enslaved today be closer to freedom tomorrow,” John cites Allies’ guiding question. “And I think the answer is yes.”

It’s not uncommon for victims and survivors to describe feeling invisible — unseen by those unaware of what trafficking looks like. Part of recognizing the inherent dignity of every trafficking victim and survivor is seeing them, understanding what they’ve experienced, and valuing their humanity.

Allies describes their work with Lighthouse as a form of truth-telling that returns dignity to survivors by making their experiences visible to others. They are united in this light-shining mission by an alliance of forensic interviewers, care coordinators, researchers, health care professionals, caseworkers, policy-makers, software engineers, and many more. They wake up every morning, laboring to stop one of the greatest human rights abuses of our time. They each are beacons of hope, working in large and small ways to ensure the safety and well-being of those they seek to serve.

Editor’s Note

Human trafficking is a towering topic. Both the problem and the work to eradicate it are intricate — as this story demonstrates. It can leave a reader immobilized from information overload. I have felt that paralysis acutely at several moments producing this report. 

What kept me engaged were the personal stories of those in the field. Our hope is that knowing some of the faces behind the work is not only inspiring but illuminating. Even catalyzing. 

Maybe you see yourself in some of the roles we highlighted. Perhaps you’re inspired to volunteer at the local drop-in center or to promote anti-trafficking bills in the next legislative session. 

Our desire is that you become an ally in the movement to protect the most vulnerable among us, ultimately leading to the defeat of human trafficking in our state and beyond.

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Jake R. Rutherford
Editor

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Contributors

2021Jake010-2

Jake Rutherford

Editor, Producer, Photographer, Writer

IMG_1C4E2AA0DF13-1

Quinn Pierson

Designer

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Michelle Nehme

Writer

Acknowledgements

We are filled with gratitude for all those who have contributed their time, knowledge, and stories to this project. You gave us more insight and inspiration than our story could contain.

Special thanks to:

The Office of the Texas Governor’s Child Sex Trafficking Team.

The Honorable Selina Mireles of the Child Protection Court for Webb, Zapata, Duval, and Jim Hogg counties.

Julia Rubio of the Webb County District Attorney’s Office, Special Victims Unit.

Bruce Kellison and Matt Kammer-Kerwick of University of Texas’ Bureau of Business Research (IC2 Institute).

Noël Busch-Armendariz of the Steve Hicks School of Social Work.

Rosita Resmondo, Cassie Cruz, Cynthia Gomez, Jeanette Rodriguez, and Jesús Sanchez of the Child Advocacy Center of Hidalgo and Starr Counties.

Bryn Stonehouse and Colleen Rud of Regional Victim Crisis Center.

Helen Browning, Angela Ochoa, Jessica Quinones, and Beatriz “Ms. Bea” Webb of ChildSafe.

Joey Surovy of the Rape Crisis Center.

Julie Strentzsch and Charles “Chuck” Paul of Roy Maas Youth Alternative.

Dr. Lora Spiller of the UT Health San Antonio Center for Miracles.

Laura Hackney and Grace McCants of AnnieCannons.

 

Contributors

2021Jake010-2

Jake Rutherford

Producer, Editor, Photographer, Writer

IMG_1C4E2AA0DF13-1

Quinn Pierson

Designer

Acknowledgements

Acknowledgements

We are filled with gratitude for all those who have contributed their time, knowledge, and stories to this project. You gave us more insight and inspiration than our story could contain.

Special thanks to:

Andrea Sparks, Alan Schonborn, Christian Benavides, and Tomi Grover of the Office of the Governor’s Child Sex Trafficking Team.

The Honorable Selina Mireles of the Child Protection Court for Webb, Zapata, Duval, and Jim Hogg counties.

Julia Rubio of the Webb County District Attorney’s Office, Special Victims Unit.

Bruce Kellison and Matt Kammer-Kerwick of University of Texas’ Bureau of Business Research (IC2 Institute).

Noël Busch-Armendariz of the Steve Hicks School of Social Work.

Rosita Resmondo, Cassie Cruz, Cynthia Gomez, Jeanette Rodriguez, and Jesús Sanchez of the Child Advocacy Center of Hidalgo and Starr Counties.

Bryn Stonehouse and Colleen Rud of Regional Victim Crisis Center.

Helen Browning, Angela Ochoa, Jessica Quinones, and Beatriz “Ms. Bea” Webb of ChildSafe.

Joey Surovy of the Rape Crisis Center.

Julie Strentzsch and Charles “Chuck” Paul of Roy Maas Youth Alternative.

Dr. Lora Spiller of the UT Health San Antonio Center for Miracles.

Laura Hackney and Grace McCants of AnnieCannons.