AUSTIN (KXAN) — A nationwide sex trafficking bust found victims right here in Austin.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation said it worked with state and local partners earlier this month to find victims of sex trafficking across the country.
The effort was called Operation Cross Country, which spanned two weeks earlier this month.
They found or identified 84 minor victims of child sex trafficking and located 37 actively missing children, along with 141 adult victims of human trafficking. The youngest victim just 11 years old.
Two teen victims were found in Austin.
Toni McKinley knows what being forced into sex trafficking is like.
“I ran away from home a lot, struggled with a lot of abuse in my household,” said McKinley, who found herself a victim of sex trafficking at 15 years old, and then again at 18, when she didn’t have a place to live.
“Just getting picked up off the street by somebody asking me, ‘Hey, what are you doing out here,’ and getting to know me,” she recalled.
McKinley’s background made her especially at risk for sex trafficking.
“While all children are vulnerable to being targeted for child sex trafficking, the most common are those that have suffered violence in the past, may be homeless, may be missing children that have run away, and those that 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 the NCMEC for Operation Cross Country.
Shehan said the situations of victims uncovered during this operation mirrored what NCMEC sees year-round.
“It’s not uncommon for a parent or someone who might be referred to as an aunt or an uncle may be involved in the exploitation of that child and may be selling them to other buyers as well,” she said.
Shehan said other common situations include sex trafficking controlled by pimps or organized by gangs.
“There were definitely cases involving children who had run away from the care of child welfare being recovered several states away, in which they were being sold on the street for sex,” she said of Operation Cross Country.
Now, she said these hundreds of victims need resources. Building trust is the first step.
“When you think about it, this trafficker has been fulfilling some of those child’s needs. So, maybe the needs for food, shelter… some of those intangible needs like a feeling of love, acceptance and belonging, while at the same time exploiting them sexually,” Shehan said.
She said traffickers also convince victims of myths.
“The child’s parents or foster parents, or teachers or loved ones, family members, won’t understand,” she explained. “[Or] that law enforcement is going to treat them poorly.”
McKinley remembers that psychological bondage, too.
“There’s a lot of manipulation and coercion involved, which makes them believe that they actually want to do this, that this is their fault, and that no one else will want them,” McKinley said. “They’re no good anymore, so you’re stuck here with me.”
McKinley eventually broke free of sex trafficking when she confided in an old boyfriend who helped her out.
She then went to community college, eventually getting her master’s degree and becoming a licensed counselor.
Today, she helps women who were in her place years ago, as executive director of Magdalene House Austin.
But it’s a limited resource — she only has six beds, and she runs a two-year program that includes counseling, group therapy, career coaching, budgeting and financing and more.
“I get mail all the time, or phone calls from individuals who are desperate for help, or the FBI or any kind of law enforcement, not just from Texas, but from all over the United States,” she said.
Shehan agreed there’s a nationwide gap in services.
McKinley said she’s only one of two homes for adult victims of sex trafficking in Central Texas, and there are also few options for kids, especially after Nicole’s Place and The Refuge have shut down.
McKinley said Austin is located in what’s known as “the triangle,” and the need for services hasn’t slowed down.
Sex trafficking victims are often moved between Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio, and Austin sits in the middle.
She said big events and crowds in these cities offer an environment that makes it easier for human trafficking.
That’s why McKinley is trying to open another home.
“I don’t need to know how to walk — I could be in a wheelchair, doesn’t matter. As long as my brain is working, I will be here helping these women,” McKinley said.
You can find more information on how to spot signs of sex trafficking and report concerns at the Texas Human Trafficking Resource Center. You can also submit a tip to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children’s cyber tip line.
The FBI said it’s identified or arrested 85 suspects with child sexual exploitation or human trafficking offenses but will be investigating further for potential charges.