Sixteen-year-old Angela was said to be a “case study” in the difficulty domestic human trafficking victims represent to law enforcement.
Though first forced into prostitution at age 11, it would be several years before local police would discover her. But instead of being rescued as a child victim, she was placed into the juvenile system in 2008 on a theft charge after a man accused her of stealing his wallet and pants. Only after first prosecuting her as a criminal — due in part, they said, to her uncooperativeness — did law enforcement recognize her as a child victim. Some months later her full story came out.
County officials said last summer that ‘Angela,’ diagnosed with hepatitis and HIV, was finally in a “safe place” getting counseling and medical attention.
Some would like to see child victims jump straight to the help line, and a decision pending with the Texas Supreme Court could move things strongly in that direction, according to Dottie Laster, a New Braunfels-based advocate fighting against human trafficking and the sexual exploitation of children.
The case involves a girl identified as B.W., taken from her mother at age 11 and placed with Child Protective Services. After running away from CPS, she was picked up by Houston Police Department officers two years later after they observed her trying to sell herself on the street. She was booked on charges of prostitution. Later, after her age of 13 became known, she was placed in the juvenile system and charged with delinquency for committing prostitution instead of returning her to CPS.
Attorney Ann Johnson (left) argued that the child should have never been put on the “prosecutorial train.” That state law holds that children under the age of 14 cannot consent to sex. Period.
“Despite their discovery that one of the passengers on that train was a 13-year-old, mentally deficient child with undeniable evidence of sexual exploitation no one to this day has pulled the emergency stop cord to say, ‘Wait. We’re supposed to be handling this issue differently’” Johnson said.
When Harris County Assistant DA Dan McCrory (right, below) stumbled in his defense of the prosecution of B.W., Justice Harriet O’Neill asked, “Why in the world would a prosecutor want to put her through the criminal, sort-of quasi-criminal system?”
“We already know what happened to this juvenile when she was in the custody of CPS, she was on the street being a prostitute,” McCrory responded.
You can tune watch the point-counterpoint yourself.
Interestingly, Johnson further alleged the police didn’t make any attempt to track down and interview the 32-year-old man B.W. identified as her “boyfriend” — a violation of B.W.'s due process under the U.S. Constitution, she said.
Laster disputes Harris County’s assertion that it is necessary to place children like B.W. in the juvenile justice system was for their own protection.
“You can protect a child when they’re in danger without charging them with a crime,” Laster said, adding that the outcome in the case could transform how state law enforcement responds to child victims.
“I believe if they rule to protect the victim that it could greatly change the way juveniles are protected in Texas; if they rule to punish the victim, it could set us back years and cause harm to many more juveniles, or minors, children. However you want to say it, I still look at them as children.”
And if Texas judges find their way to the federal mindset, they will discover that “any child in commercial sex is considered a victim of trafficking,” Laster said.
Of course, this is Texas. Worse. This is Houston, Texas, we're talking about.
The city was pegged last year as the national hub in child trafficking. Judging from the position of the DA's office, reform there — despite the training that Laster, now working with MillionKids.org and running her own consulting group, has given many of its law-enforcement officers — may come most grudgingly.
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