Invisible Chains: Understanding victims of human trafficking

It's described as an invisible chain -- the fear and dependency a human trafficking victim has with her pimp.

"She’s not choosing to live that life. She’s being forced into that life, and there’s normally a controller somewhere, somehow watching her with a long chain. You can’t see a physical chain, but she’s chained mentally," said Special Agent Theo Williams with FBI Houston.

Advocates say the control is so powerful, a trafficking victim sometimes lives at home with her family.
"Most people assume that the victims are kidnapped or they'll runaway, that's not always the case. We have victims that are trafficked in between school time and the time of their curfew," explained Williams.

Pimps may also target their victim over time.

"We've had an incidents here in the Houston area where a teen was groomed for a year. Someone reached out to her on social media. She thought he was her friend," recalled Janet Kasper with the Governor's Office Child Sex Trafficking Team."They never met in person. Then, she found herself in a crisis situation and posted a little bit on social media and he was like 'Im there, I'm there for you.' He picked her up, kept her for about 45 days, brutally raped her, beat her and sold her multiple times."

Kasper works in the Houston area to help facilitate collaboration between agencies and organizations combating human trafficking.

"The trauma that's inflicted on the brain of trafficking victim is akin to combat," said Tyler Dunman with the Montgomery County District Attorney's Office.

In order to break the invisible chain, investigators have to understand the trauma experienced by victims.

"I've heard a statistic about sometimes women will return to their trafficker seven times before they actually get to the point of saying 'I want out,'" added Dunman.

"[Traffickers] really, really good at convincing them that they love them and so they're conflicted," explained Kasper.

"They don't look at themselves as a victim. They've been manipulated. They've been brainwashed," said Sargent John Wall with the Houston Police Department. He heads the Human Trafficking Rescue Alliance (HTRA) for the Southern District of Texas, a taskforce.

"In my 26-year tenure with the police department, this has been one of the most challenging times of crimes that I've dealt with," he added.

The taskforce is made up of federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies and nonprofits that work with victims.

"We want to bring in all the resources under one roof and that is our best way to attack this problem," Wall told FOX 26.

Last month, the taskforce brought together a dozen agencies for a sting operation in The Woodlands. The operation resulted in 13 suspected pimps arrested, 28 women charged with prostitution -- overtime they may come forward as victims. Also, five victims were recovered including a 16-year-old girl.

"Some of the service providers tell us that it takes one to two years even with intense treatment counseling and things to get [the victims] to a mindset of understanding what's transpired," Dunman said.

Zyon Johnson, 19, says it took her four years to leave her trafficker. While she was with him, she had multiple run-ins with police in the Houston area.

"I wasn’t ready to receive the help. And I was too much in love with this guy," said Johnson. She met her pimp when she was 14 year-old.

"Being in that life," she added. "That’s all you know and that’s all you want to know."

Johnson said she runaway from home after she was sexually assaulted at her school and no one believed her. She needed money and wanted love. Her trafficker convinced her that he only loved her.
"That we were going to get married when I turned 18. That we were going to be a family," is what Johnson says he would tell her.

A 2016 study by University of Texas at Austin estimated there were 313,000 victims of human trafficking in Texas. Of those, about 79,000 were minors exploited for sex.

For the taskforce, about half of the more than 150 cases a year involve minors between 14 and 17 years old.

"As long as there’s a john, that’s able to have sex and give money to a girl, there’s always going to be pimp to manage the money," added Johnson.

She says last month, her trafficker was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

The taskforce knows combating human trafficking is an uphill battle, but with multiple resources and help from survivors like Johnson, officers say the will keep fighting to break these invisible chains.

"We still have things to learn, but we've come a long, long way. And we're going to get better," concluded Wall.

To report human trafficking, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888.

The Governor's Office Child Sex Trafficking Team lists the following as possible signs of child sexual exploitation:

  • Changes in school attendance, habits, friend groups, vocabulary, demeanor, and attitude
  • Sudden appearance of expensive items (e.g. manicures, designer clothes, purses, technology)
  • Tattoos or branding
  • Refillable gift cards
  • Frequent runaway episodes
  •  Multiple phones or social media accounts
  • Provocative pictures posted online or stored on the phone
  • Unexplained injuries
  • Isolation from family, friends, and community
  • Older boyfriends, girlfriends