January 7, 2013 By Brian Heaton
A Texas nonprofit organization will soon launch the first of two comprehensive databases that it hopes will aid in the fight against child sex trafficking.
The first database will debut later this month and is designed for law enforcement, nonprofit and social work personnel to see who is working on sex trafficking and what resources are available to help victims.
A second database will assist citizens of the Lone Star State that want more information on the commercial sex trade and how to help organizations devoted to battling it. It is scheduled to go live this summer. The project is an effort of Children at Risk, a Houston-based youth advocacy group.
Bob Sanborn, CEO of Children at Risk, said the goal is to connect all the organizations working on trafficking throughout Texas and foster teamwork among them. Whether it is domestic child trafficking or international sex trafficking, the database will contain items such as tips, listings of victim services and the locations of safe houses.
“You’ll see who the people are that are working on trafficking so you can communicate and no one is siloed any longer,” Sanborn said. “The hope being we start filling those gaps and collaborate a lot more.”
Not everyone is confident the databases will be effective, however.
Sgt. Byron Fassett of the Dallas Police Department’s Crimes Against Children section, said he already sees a lot of coordination on the law enforcement side regarding trafficking. In addition, due to state laws, he and other cops aren't able to populate the databases with any case information.
Fassett explained that he’s seen many database projects go by the wayside over the years, primarily because they haven’t been created with a clear end goal for the data. He said the databases became all-inclusive repositories that often crumbled under their own weight. Fassett would know. He tried doing a case management database in this area back in the 1990s.
That database still exists, but the problem according to Fassett is it simply doesn’t add enough value to what the detectives are doing.
“The mistake I made on it was that 50 percent of the information isn’t used by my detectives today,” Fassett said. “It was all really great and nice to have type of stuff, but they were spending too much time … trying to collect data and fill in data and re-fill in data. The next thing you know you’re not even working cases any more, you’ve become a data clerk. That’s a fine line.”
Sanborn, however, is optimistic the new databases will become an effective public-private partnership in Texas. He said that inevitably, because law enforcement personnel are the first ones that find sex trafficking victims and remove them from the situation, the onus is on police to work with other specialized agencies to assist those victims.
“A lot of the hard work gets done in the trenches where law enforcement is,” Sanborn said. “A lot of the prosecution of the traffickers themselves gets done at the state level. This is probably the perfect opportunity … for public and private [entities] to partner to end this truly horrible crime.”
Sex trafficking is becoming a big problem in the United States and Texas seems to be a conduit for many of its victims. According to the Austin American-Statesman, a report compiled by Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott revealed that 20 percent of the 800,000 sex or labor-trafficking victims in the U.S. pass through the state.
The database project is being funded by the Embrey Family Foundation, a philanthropic institution in Dallas. The databases are being built by the University of Texas at Arlington and will be updated and maintained by Children at Risk staff members.
The agency-nonprofit-law enforcement database will be accessible by any official working on trafficking issues that asks to be part of the project. Sanborn said there will be some due diligence done to make sure a person is legitimate, but by and large, his organization knows who the players are in the child trafficking field, so it shouldn’t be complicated.
In addition, Children at Risk has worked with a lot of regional coalitions whose members will automatically be added to the database as users. Those users will be able to access the information through a secure online portal.
Once the databases are online and users begin to address service gaps and become familiar with one another, Sanborn expects to make a big push to include more law enforcement personnel. He explained that one of the biggest areas of weakness is that there aren’t enough law enforcement people identified by their departments as specialists in trafficking cases.
So getting officers like Fassett who supervises child exploitation cases and high-risk victims and trafficking units involved in the database project is a key goal for the future.
“We’ll continue to talk to people and see what it is that we need to do to make sure this database is really quite useful,” Sanborn said.
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