Nonprofits, law enforcement and government fight sex trafficking in East Texas


Everything seemed fine in the beginning. She had run away from home and the man had offered her a place to stay, a phone to use and food to eat. Her family life had never been that great anyway, so his friendliness was a welcome blessing in the midst of an unpredictable life on the street.

He told her things she had always wanted to hear.

“You’re beautiful."

"I love you."

"I want to be with you.”

But all too soon the beauty faded, and in its place came a life she could not have imagined and one from which she was unsure how to escape.

The life was filled with sex and strangers and sometimes drugs to numb the pain. What she wanted no longer mattered. The only thing that mattered was making money for her pimp, and “no” was not an option if she wanted to live, at least that's what it felt like.

The story, a composite of those shared by human trafficking victims, is all too real in East Texas and beyond, said officials who work to prevent sex trafficking and help its victims. It is a problem that exists behind the scenes - so much so that it is almost invisible to those who aren’t looking for it or are involved in it. But it is here in the urban and rural parts of East Texas just as it is in Houston and Dallas, they said.

In the past 10 years, East Texas has gone from having virtually no organizations addressing sex trafficking to at least four nonprofit organizations and two coalitions working on the issue. The surge in services came about as individuals sensed a call from God to address the issue and found they wanted to do so in very specific ways.

For example, East Texans Kenny and Julie Rigsby started the nonprofit organization For the Silent in 2007 with a desire to help raise money for organizations fighting child sex trafficking in Southeast Asia.

In 2010, the organization shifted its focus to the problem in East Texas, where it now works in partnership with law enforcement and other organizations to rescue girls from sex trafficking, educate people about the issue and prevent it.

When East Texan Missy Zivney first heard about sex trafficking during a training conference, she was shocked by the issue and began researching it.

The more she learned, the more she sensed God calling her to do something about it. She started by putting together a summer day camp with her church during which the children raised money to combat sex trafficking.

Within a year, Ms. Zivney and her parents, who with her co-founded Refuge of Light in 2009, were applying for federal nonprofit status and were convinced they should open a home for girls. In December 2014, that is what they did.

The PREP Home, started by Tyler resident Donna Fraser in 2014, focuses on women 18 and older who are victims of sex trafficking, abuse and sexual exploitation and want to return to school, receive job training and become economically independent.

Liberty Task Force, started by Tasha and Andrew Meyer in 2012, focuses on the male victims who are 17 and under and is in the process of preparing a home in East Texas for those boys.

Ms. Zivney said though there are several nonprofit agencies in this area addressing the sex trafficking issue, they are all warranted because they focus on different aspects of the problem.

“It’s the same issue, but everybody has their part to play,” she said. “It’s like the body of Christ.”


The Problem and East Texas

Although the issue remains largely hidden to the general public, lawmakers have taken notice and defined the crime as they work to prevent it.

Federal law defines sex trafficking as “the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision or obtaining of a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act.”

The term “commercial” just means something “of value is given to or received by any person” in the process of the act.

When someone over 18 is “induced by force, fraud or coercion” to commit the commercial sex act, it is considered a severe form of trafficking.

When the person performing the act is under 18, it is a severe form of trafficking whether force, fraud or coercion is present or not.

Bars and clubs, fake massage businesses, hotels and motels and residential brothels are just some of the places where sex trafficking takes place.

The perception of privacy online means that people can be very intentional and, in some ways, discreet about getting what they want.

Stephanie Raymer, founder and chairwoman of the East Texas Coalition Against Sex Trafficking, said data regarding specific cases or victims locally can be difficult to come by, because there is not a unified collection process.

However, the data the coalition does have shows that about 30 unduplicated victims are provided services in East Texas each month through the coalition members.

Another local statistic shows that 25 percent of juveniles in lock up in Smith County are victims of sexual exploitation and trafficking, according to For the Silent.

In addition, in an operation conducted in conjunction with law enforcement, For the Silent found that 160 local sex buyers solicit prostitution through online ads within the first 24 hours in Tyler.

This does not mean that all of those online ads for sex locally involve trafficked individuals, but some of them could.

“For some reason, we want to think that here in East Texas that the depravity of man has not reached our borders,” Ms. Zivney said.

That is not the case, though. Where there is substance abuse, broken families, unsupervised children and ample access to the Internet, “for the most part, every one of our children are at risk,” she said.

Smith County Sheriff Larry Smith said in 2015 that the human trafficking of underage girls in East Texas is a sad reality.

“We’re not talking about this happening in some foreign country, on the border or some large city miles from here,” he said at the time. “We are talking about this happening right here in East Texas.”


A Statewide Issue

Last year, more than 400 cases of human trafficking (which includes sex and/or labor trafficking) were reported in Texas, according to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center.

The majority of these cases, almost 340, were for sex trafficking. Sixteen were for sex and labor. More than 60 were for labor only, and in 17 cases, the type of trafficking was not specified.

Kirsta Melton, deputy criminal chief of the human trafficking and transnational organized crime unit at the Texas Attorney General’s Office, said sex trafficking is a problem statewide and is not confined to certain cities and areas.

In addition, it is not isolated to international victims, she said. She has personally prosecuted domestic minor sex trafficking cases, meaning kids from a community being trafficked in that community.

“This is happening in your hometown and … it’s a myth to believe it’s not, because where you have buyers, you have sellers,” she said.

Ms. Melton said a Creighton University study found that in a five-month period from November 2015 to March 2016, there were 10,000 unique sellers on one online website offering sex in Houston.

Though sellers on these websites are not allowed to use the words underage, users have their own coded language that alludes to that, Ms. Melton said.

A large percentage of the young women advertised in Houston were said to be 18 and 19, meaning it’s plausible they were actually younger, Ms. Melton said.

The Attorney General’s office is tackling the issue in multiple ways. The office is home to the Texas Human Trafficking Prevention Task Force, which includes representatives from a variety of state agencies and nonprofits who are working together to determine how to best combat sex trafficking on the policy side.

In addition, the AG’s office has three prosecuting attorneys, four investigators, a victim’s advocate and a crime analyst. The prosecutors can assist district attorneys statewide and argue cases for them if requested. They also can file their own cases when the alleged crimes span multiple counties.

Training and prevention work also are a part of the office’s work on the issue.

In June, AG’s office representatives will come to Tyler as part of an event involving the nonprofit Truckers Against Trafficking and the Texas Trucking Association.

The purpose is to inform people in the trucking industry and local law enforcement about trafficking and how they can help stop it.

Since sex trafficking victims don’t typically come forward and say they are victims, it is more important for law enforcement and people in the community to recognize the signs, Ms. Melton said.

In addition to the work going on through the Attorney General’s office, the state created a new office within the governor’s office to combat sex trafficking against minors.

That office is supposed to create a case management network to help victims get the help they need.

Ms. Melton said the biggest issue going forward is determining how to help victims get their lives back once they are free.

As East Texans work toward reducing the occurrence of sex trafficking and providing for the needs of its victims, they do so from a place of hope.

“We are not trying to create a culture of fear,” Ms. Raymer said. “We are trying to create awareness, and when you are aware, you can be proactive and help prevent activities that are going on.”

Twitter: @TMTEmily



Sex Trafficking: Inducing a person by force, fraud or coercion to participate in commercial sex acts, or in which the person induced to perform such acts is under 18. 

Labor Trafficking: The obtaining of a person or persons through recruitment, harboring, transportation, or provision, and subjecting such persons by force, fraud, or coercion into involuntary servitude, peonage, debt boundary, or slavery (not to include commercial sex acts). 


Source: FBI website 



Local advocates said there are typically three types of sex trafficking in East Texas:

Survival/runaways: Typically involves child runaways who are approached by a trafficker. The trafficker often comes off as very caring offering to help the runaway by providing food or shelter. They gain the runaway’s trust, then shortly after that begin to ask “favors” of the runaway in return for their kindness. If these “favors” involve commercial sex acts, that is trafficking.

Pimp Culture: Often gang-related, though there are individual pimps. Victims are typically recruited and groomed for the role.

Familial Prostitution: Often involves people living in poverty who feel like they don’t have options. Often drug addiction is involved, so family members will sell children for sex in exchange for drugs.  



Cross socioeconomic, racial and ethnic lines, but one consistent factor is an extremely low self-esteem.


Source: Stephanie Raymer, East Texas Coalition Against Sex Trafficking founder and chairwoman




This data is for Texas and is based on the signals - phone calls, emails and web forms - received by the National Human Trafficking Resource Center that reference Texas. 

Total Human Trafficking Cases Reported: 433



Sex: 337

Labor: 63

Not Specified: 17

Sex and Labor: 16



Female: 368

Male: 50



Adult: 276

Minor: 147 



U.S. Citizen/Legal Permanent Resident: 130

Foreign National: 77 

Source: National Human Trafficking Resource Center 



25 percent of juveniles locked up in Smith County are victims of sexual exploitation and trafficking 

160 local sex buyers solicit prostitution through online ads within the first 24 hours in Tyler

30 unduplicated victims are provided services each month through the East Texas Coalition Against Sex Trafficking 

Sources: For the Silent and the East Texas Coalition Against Sex Trafficking



Teresa Richenberger, the nationally acclaimed author of “Sold to the Highest Bidder” and founder of Rahab’s Retreat & Ranch, a local program assisting victims of sex trafficking and the sex industry, is scheduled to speak at 7 p.m. May 13 at First Baptist Church in Winona, 212 Dallas St.A free-will offering will be accepted at the event and church choir members will provide the music. Donations of new or gently used garments for women or children will be accepted at the door and will be made available to the program participants or sold at the Rags to Riches resale shop that raises money to support the program. Childcare will be available. Call Loretta Tomlin at 903-638-5738 or Tony Watson at 214-862-1069 for more information about the event.




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