The Human Trafficking Crisis in Waco

By Katie Mendez


Normally, when we think of human trafficking, we think of the movie Taken—of people being sold overseas, of people in other countries. Rarely do we think of people in our country being trafficked—and, when we do, we usually think of Americans being sold to other countries, much like in the movie Taken.

In reality, human trafficking looks a little different. Human trafficking is not just an “overseas” problem. It also looks like Americans being sold to other Americans, foreigners being sold to Americans, and Americans traveling to other countries to partake in child sex tourism.

Many people are shocked to hear the extent and prevalence of human trafficking in the United States. Even more so, Texans are shocked to hear that the state holds 313,000 trafficking victims, of which 79,000 are minors being trafficked for sex.


Breaking Down “Human Trafficking”*

Human trafficking is the general term given to modern slavery that involves the sale and trade of human beings. There is, however, more than one type of human trafficking. The most common types of human trafficking—with simplified definitions—are:

labor trafficking: the selling of human beings for construction work, domestic labor, etc.;

sex trafficking: the selling of human beings into the commercial sex industry; and,

debt bondage: a type of labor trafficking in which the trafficker uses someone’s debt to hold them in slave labor.

*It is important to note that this is not a comprehensive breakdown of human trafficking, but an introduction to facilitate understanding of the rest of this blog article.

The two forms of human trafficking most seen in Texas are labor trafficking (234,000 people in Texas alone) and domestic minor sex trafficking (DMST), where minors (anyone under the age of 18, therefore, anyone who cannot legally consent to sex) are sold into the commercial sex industry. In the past, many people referred to this as child prostitution, a misnomer, given that it is impossible for children to consent. Because children cannot legally consent, any act of “child prostitution” involves rape and immediately becomes sex trafficking once they’re sold.

Although Texas is the state with the second highest rate of human trafficking, the amount of services provided are limited. UnBound, an anti-trafficking nonprofit in Waco, provides great advocacy and education programs. The Advocacy Center provides great counseling resources and helps identify current trafficking victims, but is not equipped to shelter sex trafficking survivors. Likewise, the Family Abuse Center will house sex trafficking survivors when necessary, but is not equipped to provide case management specific to the needs of a sex trafficking survivor and is often at capacity for survivors of domestic violence.

Currently, there is no safe house dedicated to the needs of sex trafficking survivors, adult or minor, in central Texas. A two-page Google search will show six safe houses for survivors of human trafficking in the state, of which only one is tailored for survivors of DMST.  These safe houses are: Refuge of Light, Mosaic Services, Redeemed Ministries, The Refuge Ranch, Refuge City, and Freedom Place, which is the safe house for DMST survivors.

A safe house start-up in Waco, SHE is Freedom, is working to open a drop-in center for survivors of domestic minor sex trafficking. While the organization has found a location, garnering financial support has been a challenge due to Waco’s economic hardships and lack of government aid.

According to the Texas government, the best method for providing aid to survivors of sex trafficking is to rely on the foster care system or to place young victims with families that volunteer to help. On the surface level, the government’s plan sounds logical—use existing state resources, such as the foster care system, or vetted volunteers outside of the foster care system, so that young victims have a supportive family unit. But this plan is better in theory than in action, according to studies conducted on the connection between the foster care system and human trafficking. One study found that “98% of children who are identified as survivors of sex trafficking had previous involvement with child welfare services, and many were legally in the care and custody of the state while they were being prostituted by traffickers.” Further, it would be incredibly difficult to find families willing to take in a traumatized, often drug addicted youth; most importantly, they would not have the training to ensure that they would not return to their trafficker. The amount of resources that would be required to train 79,000 families to handle sex trafficking survivors would be better spent in safe houses with people who are already trained by multiple nonprofits and universities.


How to Help

Donating and volunteering with anti-trafficking organizations and nonprofits is a great way to get involved. Many students volunteer with UnBound and help mentor at-risk youth. Advocacy is a very important step in prevention of human trafficking; but, we need to do more for those who have already been victimized and need to escape. We need to do more for children who are falling through the cracks of a system not built for their protection. In short, we need a safe house. We need a place tailored to provide the services, protection, and mentoring within a community of individuals who have been there, not just people who sympathize.

(If you want to donate to SHE is Freedom, the safe house start-up, you can visit