For Austin agencies, combatting human trafficking is a team effort


The White House established a task force last month designed to increase federal agencies’ ability to identify and rebuild the lives of human trafficking victims in the U.S. Locally, Austin social workers, law enforcement and government agencies join forces to combat human trafficking.

Noel Busch-Armendariz, an associate dean for research in the School of Social Work, said one of the biggest problems with human trafficking is it often goes undetected.

“It’s a big hidden problem, with both labor trafficking and sex trafficking,” Busch-Armendariz said. “We think there is a lot more going on, but it’s hard to uncover.”

The Austin Police Department’s human trafficking unit helps investigate suspected cases of trafficking, which are usually reported by victims or professionals who come into contact with them. When investigating possible trafficking cases, officers look for signs of physical and mental coercion in the victims.

“We’re really looking at whether or not they have the freedom to really make those choices that are being made,” Sgt. Bob Miljenovich said. “Are they free to come and go? Are they being forced to pay off some type of debt, or is there some other way they’re being held, even if it’s not physically? Those are the things we look for.”

Many trafficked individuals are foreign-born and brought into the United States, according to Linda Edwards Gockel, a spokeswoman for Texas Health and Human Services. Once rescued, these victims are considered as refugees and become eligible for many federal health-care and financial services.

“Texas has the largest number of refugees in the country, with roughly 6,000 to 9,000 settled in the state,” Gockel said.

Social service providers assist the victim in the process of mental healing and finding a safe place to live, Busch-Armendariz said.

“Law enforcement is really in charge of investigating the crime, but the social worker actually is the person charged with supporting the victim through that process emotionally and psychologically,” Busch-Armendariz said.

Funding for housing, language, social and medical services for victims may come from a mix of federal and state agencies, according to Busch-Armendariz.

Miljenovich said there is a shortage of safe and immediate housing for trafficking victims who are rescued in Austin.

“The biggest area that we have trouble with is having facilities that can take care of the victims once they’re found and taken out of the situation,” Miljenovich said.

Miljenovich said facilities that provide both immediate housing and medical attention are essential because they provide a higher level of security for victims who may need further treatment. 

“You don’t want a facility where people can just come and go, because sometimes [victims] don’t really agree that it’s best that they leave that lifestyle, maybe because they’re on drugs or feel they have no other choice,” Miljenovich said.

Laurie Cook Heffron, research coordinator in the School of Social Work, said public education is important to help end human trafficking, especially for foreign-born victims.

“There’s less focus on whether there are people exploited in our hometowns on construction sites or in migrant farm work, and I think this is partly due to the anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States,” Heffron said. “One of the things all of us can do is learn a little bit about it and educate ourselves.”