By Jazmine Ulloa
The girls Ellen Parsons wants to help don’t tell.
They don’t trust adults. They don’t use words like pimp or prostitute. And they don’t view themselves as victims of an ugly, multimillion-dollar sex business that exploits hundreds of thousands of adolescents every day. Instead, Ellen says, they see the trade as a way to survive and remain independent in a system that has often misunderstood their struggles — and in the worst cases treated them as criminals.
All of this was initially tough for me to grasp, as Ellen and I sat in her office at Lifeworks, a youth advocacy center in South Austin where she works as a counselor.
The term sex trafficking tends to conjure images of girls and young women brought into the country from faraway places, lured by opportunities, forced by abductors. But over the past decade, we have slowly, painfully come to realize that some of the most vulnerable victims of the vicious rings that travel across the United States do not come from abroad. They were born and live here.
We have a long way to go before we can offer our help.
We don’t think of girls and young women so close to home caught in the throes of an ancient model for an ancient profession: Pimps using manipulation, coercion and perverse versions of love to control their victims.
But at least the city of Austin is attempting to take a step in the right direction. The anti-trafficking organization Restore A Voice is working with other area nonprofits and the Austin Police Department to create a shelter specifically for U.S.-born girls and teens found in Central Texas.
Right now in Austin and across the country, the two options these adolescents tend to face are time in juvenile detention or placement within the catchall net of shelters operated by state child protective services or private nonprofits. These places cater to abused and neglected children, domestic violence survivors and their families, but social workers say they are not equipped to handle the complex trauma of trafficking survivors.
And most have not yet developed ways to screen for sex trade victims.
Through special training and years of experience, Ellen has found her own ways to tell apart the young girls and teens caught in the life.
Sometimes, she listens for the subtext in their conversation. Often, she watches what they carry. Wads of cash they stuff under a mattress or in the dark corner of a drawer. Expensive cell phones. Brand-named clothing. “Those things they could not have afforded on their own,” she says.
But how do you count all of the numbers of girls in the shadows?
To read more on efforts to bring a shelter to Austin click here.