DALLAS – At 16, Jean was the more experienced sex worker in the East Dallas house. It was her job to ensure the new girl’s trial run as a prostitute went smoothly.
But when the girl’s john leaned in for a kiss, her body went limp, her eyes locked in an empty stare. Confused, then panicked, the man grabbed his clothes and rushed out the sliding back door to his car parked in the alley.
Jean yelled for someone to come help, knowing their pimp would be furious: No trick, no money. Then she slipped out the house’s red front door to calm her nerves with a cigarette.
Jean had recognized the dead look in the new girl’s eyes. All of a sudden, phantoms from her own past – ones she had “pushed down so deep and ignored so much” – were impossible to keep at bay.
Jean had come to Texas under unspeakable circumstances.
When she was 9 years old, her mother, struggling with drug addiction, had sent Jean from Missouri to rural Oklahoma to live with her father. In fifth grade, Jean’s father claimed he would begin home-schooling her. Instead, he took her into a bedroom and blindfolded her, telling her she was going to have sex with a boy she liked. Then he tied her down and raped her.
The abuse continued for years. Periodically, in an attempt to dodge child welfare investigators, Jean’s father packed up and moved, dragging her from Oklahoma to Arkansas to Texas. By the time they landed in Paris, Texas, in 2009, the 13-year-old was pregnant with his child.
Jean told police about the abuse a year after she gave birth to a baby girl, and prosecutors quickly built a case against her father. A judge sentenced him to 40 years in prison; Jean and her infant daughter, meanwhile, were cast into the Texas foster care system.
For the State, that meant assuming the extraordinarily difficult job of parenting a young girl with a complex history of abuse, who was now a parent herself. For Jean and her daughter, it meant being consigned to the care of a state agency in turmoil, where kids – especially those who have suffered the greatest trauma – are at high risk of being lured into the sex trade.
Jean became one of the roughly 12,000 Texas kids in long-term foster care, or “permanent managing conservatorship,” the State’s designation for children who cannot find lasting homes with relatives or adoptive parents and are unable to be reunited with their biological families.
It is a system where, as U.S. District Judge Janis Jack wrote in a 2015 legal opinion, “rape, abuse, psychotropic medication, and instability are the norm” and children often leave more damaged than when they arrive.
It is also a system from which many children enter the world of selling sex. Eighty-six percent of runaway children in the United States suspected of being forced into sex work came from the child welfare system, according to a 2016 analysis of cases reported to the National Center on Missing and Exploited Children. Of the 79,000 child sex trafficking victims estimated to be in the state, the vast majority were in foster care or had previous contact with Child Protective Services, according to a recent University of Texas study.
“It’s very easy for a trafficker to prey on those specific kids,” said Dixie Hairston, who leads anti-sex trafficking efforts in North Texas for the nonprofit advocacy group Children At Risk. “Something is going wrong. These kids are not being kept safe.”
In Texas, the state agency responsible for protecting them is in crisis. Officials at the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, which reviews child abuse allegations and finds homes for foster kids, say they need an additional $1 billion just to make basic reforms over the next two years, such as alleviating large caseloads for employees and addressing a severe shortage of high-quality foster homes. That’s on top of the $110 million budget shortfall the agency currently faces.
Low-paid, overworked child welfare workers quit their jobs at alarming rates; one-third of investigative caseworkers leave each year. That has led to appalling delays in the agency’s investigations of mistreatment, even in urgent situations where children are considered to be at immediate risk of physical or sexual abuse. Data released by the agency last year revealed that nearly 1,000 of the highest-priority children on any given day had not been seen by investigators with the State’s Child Protective Services division.
The agency says it has brought that number down to about 450 children each day. Investigators did not attempt to locate more than half of those kids within the 24 hours required by law. The rest could not be found.
State leaders recently approved a pay raise to keep existing caseworkers on the job and signed off on a plan to hire more than 800 new ones. Child welfare officials say they need more funding to continue that progress; lawmakers say that progress has come too slowly to warrant additional money.
“It’s always about funding – we know that,” said Hank Whitman, the child welfare chief, during a tense exchange at a recent Senate budget hearing. “We either pay now, or we pay later.”
“We gave you the money you asked for,” said Jane Nelson, a Republican from Flower Mound and the Senate’s chief budget writer. “We want to see results.”
So far, lawmakers have shown a willingness to spend less than one-third of the additional $1 billion the child welfare agency says it needs. And that doesn’t even include the costs of reforms mandated by the lawsuit, which are tied up in court. The agency has not publicly speculated on how much the reforms would cost, but one preliminary estimate by state budget analysts put it at “several hundred million dollars.”
Without early intervention in cases of abuse, children remain in conditions where they are likely to be vulnerable to traffickers. But even when kids like Jean are removed from troubled homes, they are plunged into a broken system – one that at best confirms their mistrust of adults and at worst perpetuates the abuse.
Jean first arrived at the house with the red door in 2011, on a chilly morning in late autumn. She had traveled there on a Dallas city bus, holding a piece of paper with a stranger’s address on it.
A small-framed girl, at 5-foot-1 and roughly 90 pounds, Jean walked nervously down an unfamiliar street in a poor neighborhood near Pleasant Grove in East Dallas. When she arrived at the house on Gonzales Drive, she typed a Facebook message to send to her friend Anna, whom she had met at a residential program for foster youth.
“I made it gurll,” she wrote.
It was not Jean’s idea to run away from the facility. That had come from Anna, who had connections to an older woman who offered to take the girls into her home.
After bouncing between a handful of different foster care placements, Jean had originally planned to live in the residential program until her 18th birthday, when she would age out of state custody. But she was miserable there. The secure campus imposed a rigid schedule and a curfew. Cellphones weren’t allowed. And staff had to escort the girls between buildings whose doors would not open without an employee’s keycard and a four-digit code.
Most of all, Jean missed her baby girl, who was then 2 years old. Child welfare workers had sent her to live with Jean’s grandparents in Missouri. At the time, a suicidal Jean was sent to a psychiatric hospital.
“I wanted to die,” she said. “When CPS did that, I said, ‘I’m done. They can go to hell for all I care.’”
Jean had reservations about the plan to run, but it was the dream of possibly reuniting with her daughter that pushed her to leave. “She was all I had left after my dad did what he did to me,” Jean said.
She picked out her nicest jewelry and clothing for the cross-town journey, stuffing everything she could not wear on her body into a backpack. On the way to school, she prayed the oversized bag would not arouse suspicion. Then, walking past her classmates, she left school grounds to catch a bus.
After two train transfers and another bus trip, Jean arrived at the house and composed herself.
Then she knocked on the red door.
The long-term foster care system sets children up for a series of rejections. Sometimes, emotionally fragile children turn to the underground sex industry, where pimps promise them the security and affection they crave.
Consider the 11-year-old who’s removed from her biological parents after Child Protective Services discovers abuse at home.
She’s taken, perhaps in the middle of the night, to an emergency shelter. If no beds are available there, she may spend the night on a cot in a state office building.
She can’t stay at the emergency shelter for more than a few weeks. So she’s placed in a long-term shelter, or maybe a group home with several other children. If she has younger siblings, she might be separated from them, depending on where foster families are available.
Within a matter of weeks, she has encountered several caseworkers whose titles can be difficult to keep straight: the investigator, the family-based safety services specialist, the temporary managing conservatorship worker.
By the time she turns 13, she has shuffled through three or four different placements and several more caseworkers. She begins acting out at school, getting into fights, struggling with depression. Her parents have failed to make the necessary changes to get her back. Her relatives are willing to take in her younger siblings, but they fear she’ll be too much work. Now a teenager, she faces a low possibility of adoption. No one, it seems, wants her.
She decides to run.
“I have interviewed hundreds of children, and I can’t tell you how common that story is,” said Chuck Paul, a former special investigator for the State who tracked down children who ran away from foster care. “You seem to get bounced around all over the place, no one seems to want you or care about you. What’s the only recourse this child has if they’re upset?”
More than 1,000 children in long-term foster care ran away between September 2015 and August 2016, the majority teenagers. One in four did not return.
The State only began tracking sex trafficking among recovered runaways in late 2015. In the year following, child welfare officials reported just 31 incidents. That number is surely an undercount because trafficking victims usually do not come forward, and child welfare officials acknowledge that not all children who run away from the State’s care are even reported to proper authorities.
It takes the agency about six weeks to find the runaways they do recover. Trafficking experts say many runaways will be approached by a pimp within two days.
“When you get past 48 hours, it’s a very dangerous time,” said Angela Goodwin, the Department of Family and Protective Services’ director of investigations. “We could obviously do better in the speed in which we’re trying to recover these kids.”
The State needs far more resources to better handle teenage trafficking victims, said Michael McMurray, a detective in the Dallas Police Department who worked on Jean’s case.
“They’re not going to call 911 and say, ‘I’ve been a victim of human trafficking, can you help me?’ – and that’s the type of victim the system is designed for,” he said. “When you’ve got an uncooperative victim who does not want to go back home, does not want to be recovered and rescued, does not want to give you information about the person who’s been exploiting them, the system tends to break down and not work.”
When Jean knocked on the red door needing food, a bed, and a change of clothes, it was Jasmine Johnson who answered.
“My name is Jean,” the runaway said.
“I know,” Johnson said, welcoming her inside.
In her early 20s with cornrow braids, a scar near her left eye, and tattoos on her neck, hands, and arms, Johnson had grown up in Dallas, where she liked to say the streets had given her the pimp title. She was a regular at lesbian bars, known to surround herself with pretty girls who danced at local strip clubs.
Johnson’s was a home unlike any Jean had been in before. Johnson and her girlfriend smoked marijuana and drank liquor freely. They gave Jean a cellphone and new clothes from J.C. Penney. They let her skip school. Jean felt suddenly like an adult.
A photo from one of Jean’s first nights at the house shows her nestled into Johnson’s living room couch, wearing large hoop earrings, smirking and flashing a middle finger at the camera. She was enjoying herself.
Within a few days, the atmosphere changed. Johnson told Jean she owed rent money and would need to find a way to come up with a few hundred dollars. At first, Johnson suggested she dance at strip clubs, but Jean couldn’t get in without a fake ID.
Johnson told her she’d need to earn her keep another way: selling sex.
The prospect of having sex with strangers for money scared Jean. But returning to foster care sounded even worse. “I was willing to do whatever I needed to stay away,” she said.
The routine was straightforward. When dusk fell, Jean left the house, heading south toward a convenience store at a busy intersection a quarter-mile away. From there, she walked past an elementary school and up and down dimly-lit residential streets, trying to look comfortable when men approached her in their cars. $100 for an hour. $60 for 30 minutes.
Jean soon earned a nickname: Snow Bunny, a reference to her white skin, which stood out in the mostly black neighborhood.
Johnson allowed Jean to dye her hair burgundy – an indulgence forbidden at her foster care placements – so that she’d be less recognizable. At home, Jean swept her newly shorn bangs toward her right temple and showed off her freshly painted fingernails for a bathroom selfie.
But even after the makeover, Jean often returned home after a long night of walking with no money to show for it. In Johnson’s house, coming up short meant punishment.
The first time Jean was beaten, she said, it began as a joke. Then Johnson and a man whose name she doesn’t remember began whipping her with a belt, leaving welts from her neck down to her ankles.
Another time, Jean said Johnson grew angry because she thought Jean hadn’t collected enough money from a trick. Johnson grabbed Jean by the neck and shoved her against the living room wall. Jean remembered Johnson warning that the punishment would be “much worse” if she messed up again.
The State’s official record-keeping on incidents of child sex trafficking has so many holes it’s impossible to say whether what happened to Jean is common or exceptional.
But in her 2015 legal opinion that found the State’s foster care system had violated children’s civil rights, Judge Janis Jack called such cases “typical.” Jean’s story shares commonalities with that of the lead plaintiff in that lawsuit against the state, a teenage girl who was taken away from abusive parents and bounced between 19 Texas foster care placements before deciding she’d fare better with a pimp.
Gov. Greg Abbott and Attn. Gen. Ken Paxton are fighting the ruling. They argue that the litigation is a waste of money, that the federal judge overstated foster care’s deficiencies and that the State can make its own decisions about reforms.
Both Abbott and Paxton, through spokesmen, declined to be interviewed for this series.
Asked about the lawsuit at a recent news conference, Paxton said he is obligated to defend the State, not make policy. The head of his human trafficking unit, Kirsta Melton, acknowledged that efforts to reform foster care and prevent sex trafficking “will go hand in hand.” But if the attorney general’s office prevails in the lawsuit, responsibility for reforms will fall solely to State lawmakers, who show little appetite to pay for most of the costly improvements.
Melton said she expected major reforms to come from lawmakers in 2017. “I am thrilled to see that those are issues that are being addressed at the Legislature this session,” she said.
Not long after she watched the new girl’s failed trick, Jean decided to run away. She grabbed her belongings and fled, one last time, through the red door.
Police found her by chance a few days later, when they pulled over a car for a traffic violation and discovered her in the back seat, hitchhiking. She went back to foster care – and ran away several more times – before being returned to her mother’s custody.
She was finally free of the long-term foster care system and attempting to rebuild her life. Then Jean received a subpoena.
She had no desire to return to Dallas, but prosecutors needed her testimony against Johnson, who was charged with trafficking a minor and compelling prostitution. Johnson ultimately received a 25-year sentence, which she is serving out at a women’s prison in Gatesville. She maintains that she only pimped out adult women and never forced Jean to do anything. She also says she was never physically abusive to Jean.
Jean, now 21, says she is working to make up for lost time, starting with basic tasks like trying to get her GED and a driver’s license. She found work at a fast food restaurant but did not hold the job for long. After being arrested last year for meth possession, Jean says she is attending Narcotics Anonymous meetings and looking for a rehab facility she can afford. Her daughter, now 7, still lives in Missouri with Jean’s grandparents.
Smoking a cigarette in the living room of her mother’s mobile home in Mount Vernon, Texas, her voice hoarse, Jean recently recalled the way her father would intimidate her at the height of his sexual abuse. If police found out, he told her, she would be taken far away by child welfare workers, lose her daughter, and become even more miserable.
She paused and then shook her head.
“Everything my dad told me would happen to keep me from telling on him turned out to be true.”
Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.
One of the reporters on this story, Neena Satija, also works for Reveal, a public radio show and podcast from The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.
About this story:
The Texas Tribune generally does not publish the names of victims of sexual abuse or sex trafficking. Jean is identified by her first name at her request. Anna is a pseudonym. The details in Jean’s story come from interviews with Jean and 14 other people who are familiar with her story, as well as a nearly 1,000-page transcript of the sex-trafficking trial of Jasmine Johnson, which included testimony from Jean and Anna.