AUSTIN (KXAN) — A nationwide sex trafficking investigation has found victims right here in Austin.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation said it worked with state and local partners earlier this month to find sex trafficking victims across the country.
The effort was called Operation Cross Country, which ran for two weeks earlier this month.
They found or identified 84 minor victims of child sex trafficking and located 37 actively missing children, as well as 141 adult victims of human trafficking. The youngest victim is only 11 years old.
Two teenage victims were found in Austin.
Toni McKinley knows what it’s like to be coerced into sex trafficking.
“I ran away from home a lot, I struggled with a lot of abuse in my house,” said McKinley, who found herself sex-trafficked at age 15 and then again at 18, as she had no room. live.
“I just got picked up on the street by someone asking me, ‘Hey, what are you doing here’ and getting to know me,” she recalled.
McKinley’s background made her particularly vulnerable to sex trafficking.
“While all children are susceptible to being targeted for child sex trafficking, the most common are those who have experienced abuse in the past, may be homeless, may miss children who have run away and those who are marginalized by society,” said Staca Shehan, vice president of analytical services at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
The FBI said it worked with NCMEC for Operation Cross Country.
Shehan said the situation of casualties discovered during this operation mirrors what NCMEC has seen throughout the year.
“It’s not uncommon for a relative or someone who might be called an aunt or uncle to be involved in the exploitation of that child and also sell it to other buyers,” she said. .
Shehan said other common situations include sex trafficking controlled by pimps or organized by gangs.
“There have certainly been cases of children who had run away from child welfare being retrieved in several states, in which they were sold on the streets for sex,” she said of of Operation Cross Country.
Now, she says, those hundreds of victims need resources. Building trust is the first step.
“When you think about it, this trafficker has met some of the needs of these children. So maybe the needs for food, shelter… some of those intangible needs like a sense of love and acceptance and belonging, while exploiting them sexually,” Shehan said.
She said traffickers also convince victims of myths.
“The parents of the child or the adoptive parents, or the teachers or the relatives, the family members, will not understand,” she explained. “[Or] that law enforcement will treat them badly.
McKinley also remembers this psychological bondage.
“There’s a lot of manipulation and coercion involved, making them think they actually want to do this, it’s their fault and no one else will want them,” McKinley said. “They’re no good anymore, so you’re stuck here with me.”
McKinley finally broke free from sex trafficking when she confided in a former boyfriend who helped her.
She then went to community college, eventually earned her master’s degree, and became a licensed counselor.
Today, she helps women who were in her shoes years ago as the general manager of Magdalene House Austin.
But it’s a limited resource — it only has six beds, and it runs a two-year program that includes counseling, group therapy, career coaching, budgeting and funding, and more.
“I get mail all the time, or phone calls from people who are in desperate need of help, or from the FBI or any type of law enforcement, not just from Texas, but from all over the United States” , she said.
Shehan agreed that there is a national gap in services.
McKinley said she was just one of two homes for adult victims of sex trafficking in central Texas, and there were also few options for children, especially after Nicole’s Place closed. and The Refuge.
McKinley said Austin is located in what’s called “the triangle,” and the need for services hasn’t slowed.
Victims of sex trafficking are often moved between Dallas, Houston and San Antonio, and Austin is in the middle.
She said the big events and crowds in these cities provide an environment that facilitates human trafficking.
That’s why McKinley is trying to open another house.
“I don’t need to be able to walk – I could be in a wheelchair, whatever. As long as my brain is working, I’ll be here to help these women,” McKinley said.
You can find more information on how to spot signs of sex trafficking and report problems at the Texas Human Trafficking Resource Center. You can also submit a report to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children’s Cyber Reporting Line.
The FBI said it has identified or arrested 85 suspects of child sexual exploitation or human trafficking, but will investigate further for possible charges.