Child sex trafficking in East Texas doesn't look like it does on television. It's much more subtle and behind-the-scenes.
Shining the light on this problem and what is being done to address it across the region was the focus of the "Out of the Darkness" community forum put on by The Women's Fund of Smith County and the East Texas Medical Center Tyler on Tuesday. More than 100 people attended.
Judge Carole Clark of the 321st District Court said in some of the cases she has seen, the child is trafficked by a family member or someone close to them, such as a mother and the mother's boyfriend.
In other cases, the child is a runaway. Statistically, if a teenager runs away from home, it will take 48 hours before a stranger (who could be a trafficker) finds them and picks them up off the street.
Julie Rigsby, co-founder of the For the Silent, a nonprofit working to eradicate child sex trafficking, said the traffickers typically find a vulnerability in the child and fill that need. Once they establish the bond, they assume the child will do whatever they want them to.
The trafficker can entice the child with shelter, material possessions and money.
Reaching these children can then be difficult, because they sometimes find a home - comfort, security and emotional attachment - in these bad situations.
Judge Clark said the child has to reach a point where they are scared enough or tired enough of that life that they want to get out.
She said trauma underlies the behavior of these children. The hole in them created by the trauma is something they will continue to try to fill.
"We know what causes it," Judge Clark said. "We know how to fix it. The problem is getting the cooperation of the clients."
Officer Jeff Roberts with the Tyler Police Department said there are few statistics to provide about this issue especially when it comes to juveniles because a lot of the victims do not come forward until they are adults. Still, he said, it is a problem here.
"This is a dynamic that greatly affects our foster children and our at-risk youth," he said.
Mrs. Rigsby said on just one website there are between 30 and 50 ads per day advertising sex in East Texas.
Female minors are advertised on these websites and it may look like they are putting themselves out there, but Mrs. Rigsby said it is the work of the pimps.
Missy Zivney with Refuge of Light said over the past year and a half the nonprofit's safe home has housed eight girls who have been victims of sex trafficking.
She said they get about 20 contacts per month about trafficking victims in this area.
Officer Judson Moore with the Tyler Police Department said pornography is what drives this whole industry.
He called on men to spend time with boys and teach them what is acceptable behavior and what is not.
Attorney James Carter, who is on contract with Judge Clark's court and represents children in the care of Child Protective Services, said children who have experienced pervasive abuse at an early age often respond by reaching out and loving the people or things that hurt them.
"You can't imagine how hard these children are," he said, describing the emotional walls they have built up over the years to protect themselves from getting hurt again.
Stopping it is going to take a concerted effort, Carter said.
But, he left attendees with an action step.
Quoting Mother Theresa, Carter said, "If you want to make a difference in the world, go home and love your family."
Brenda McBride, a licensed clinical social worker with ETMC's Behavioral Health Center, had a similar suggestion. She urged parents to put down their cell phones and connect with their children.
"It starts with us being present emotionally in relationship with our children today," she said.
If you go
Though The Women's Fund of Smith County and ETMC Tyler came together Tuesday to address the issue of child sex trafficking, another organization is hoping to spread information about this issue next month.
Operation Underground Railroad is promoting "The Abolitionists," a documentary-style film about the fight to abolish child slavery.
This movie will be shown at Carmike 14 in Tyler, but only if enough people purchase tickets.
"The Abolitionists" is slated for a showing at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 6, but a certain amount of tickets must be purchased online by Aug. 30, for the showing to make.
The film shares the story of Operation Underground Railroad, a nonprofit organization that aims to abolish child sex slavery and works with domestic and foreign governments to do so.
Gerald R. Molen, producer of Schindler's List, Jurassic Park and many other films, is one of the executive producers on the film.
Tickets cost $12 each with 15 percent of ticket proceeds going directly to saving children, according to the movie's website.
Tickets must be purchased online at www.rescue2million.com. A hold will be placed on the card for the ticket price, but will not be charged until the show makes, a local organizer said.