Hundreds of thousands of young children fall victim to sex trafficking in the U.S., and today, the severity of the issue in Smith County was discussed for the first time.
The East Texas Medical Center Tyler (ETMC) and the Women's Fund of Smith County hosted "Out of the Darkness," a community forum where local organizations gathered to discuss the reality of child prostitution in East Texas. The forum took place at the ETMC Pavilion conference center.
"When you're talking about sex trafficking, I think it's an issue people would like to think doesn't happen in Smith County," said Judge Carole Clark of the 321st District Court.
Carole served as the keynote speaker.
In addition, a panel was held afterwards to answer questions from the audience. The panel had representatives from ETMC Behavioral Health Center, Children's Advocacy Center of Smith County, For the Silent, Tyler Police Department and Refuge of Light.
"[Sex trafficking] has grown to be a very pervasive problem in our midst," said Missy Zivney of Refuge of Light, an organization providing a safe space and rescue for women victims.
Marty Wiggins, board chairman of the Women's Fund for Smith County, said while this was the first forum in Smith County for sex trafficking, the conversation was well overdo.
The intersection known as "the four corners," is where children and teens are victimized. It is where Loop 323 and Highway 69 meet in Tyler.
She discussed the severity of sex trafficking, mentioning how easy it is for children to become victims. She said it starts within the home, oftentimes with incest or abuse.
Wiggins said it is easy for traffickers to take advantage and lure in children.
"There are professional people out there who are looking for kids who are vulnerable," she said.
Websites like Craigslist and Backpage make it easy, according to Zivney.
"A trafficker has complete access to our children. They can come into our living rooms," she said. "They can come into our homes, just through the use via internet."
Texas is an epicenter for sex trafficking, in part because of having an open border with Mexico, vast highways and a plethora of bus stations, according to Wiggins. The numbers show it.
Looking at the FBI's Uniform Crime Report, Texas leads in every category. Participating agencies by state, for example, shows Texas in the lead with 1,074 agencies - the only state to top 1,000.
This is only one example from the 2014 UCR on human trafficking.
Despite the numbers, victims of sex trafficking do not have much help.
"In the state of Texas, there are one of two [rescue] homes," said Zivney. "We get calls weekly and we have to turn girls away because we don't have the capacity in our home."
The ETMC Behavioral Healthcare Center provides the only inpatient program for young adults in East Texas. A private facility is located at 8101 University Blvd. in Tyler. More information can be found online and by calling 903-566-0088.