A sold out crowd filled the Santiko’s Bijou theater Thursday night for the Rivard Report screening of “The Long Night,” a documentary following the stories of two young, female sex trafficking victims, the legal troubles, and the three law enforcement officers who attempted to tackle the trafficking issue at its root causes.
Though the film took place in Seattle, Wash., Rivard Report photographer and videographer Kathryn Boyd-Batstone, who was also the night’s moderator, reminded the audience that sex trafficking is in fact a domestic issue, happening right here in San Antonio.
In fact, the Medical Center, which is a short three miles from the Bijou theater, is one of the most heavily trafficked areas in the entire city, she said.
The compelling documentary gave viewers an in-depth look at how these young women fall prey to sex trafficking. Most of the time, the audience learned, victims are runaways who, after spending time on the streets or in and out of homeless shelters, eventually find themselves stuck in a never-ending cycle of poverty, drug addiction, and the sex trade.
One of the young women featured in the film eventually escaped her abusive and traumatizing experiences as a sex slave, seeking help and making her way back home to her parents. But the audience received a sobering dose of reality when they learned that the other woman, who developed a severe crack and heroin addiction, ended up in jail, a fate all too common for individuals caught up in the sex exploitation industry.
A panel discussion followed the documentary and featured four local experts who work with victims of abuse, homelessness, and sex trafficking on a regular basis in San Antonio and Texas.
Panelists included Kim VanHooser, executive director and founder of Ransomed Life; Monica Garcia, Haven for Hope outreach coordinator; Mallory Myers, assistant attorney general in the Texas Attorney General Human Trafficking and Transnational/Organized Crime section; and Charles Paul, Child Protective Services special investigator.
Each panelist, in their varied areas of expertise, aimed to define what the sex trafficking industry looks like in Texas. More than 7,000 cases of commercial exploitation have been reported across the U.S., Paul said, adding that 25% of those cases take place in Texas.
Through Garcia’s outreach efforts for Haven for Hope, which allow her to work personally with the city’s homeless population, she has seen firsthand the effects of sex trafficking. She is currently working with one San Antonio woman, who in addition to being seven months pregnant, is caught up in a heroin addiction and an abusive, seemingly inescapable relationship with a sex trafficker.
Victims of such circumstances often feel crippled and hopeless, she said.
“She’s scared, and doesn’t know what to do or how she can support herself,” Garcia said. “Trying to help her get out of that situation takes a lot of work and careful coordination.”
A lot of the time, VanHooser added, victims are trafficked by family or a predator posing as a loving partner. That betrayal, she said, makes it difficult to connect with others who could help them.
“It’s a long and difficult process, because they don’t trust adults and rightfully so,” she said. “It’s hard to mesh them back into school and society after the trauma and abuse they’ve been through.”
Many girls are unaware of helpful resources, or unsure how to access organizations like Ransomed Life, Haven for Hope, or other women’s shelters, Paul said. Young girls are often arrested for prostitution, but there’s no educational outreach to show them alternatives to trafficking. After serving time, they’re spit back out into the cycle.
“A lot of victims are treated as criminals,” he said. “We need to create something to keep them out of detention centers … and we need to treat them as individuals because their individuality has been taken away from them.”
Perhaps the most astounding realization of the night was that there are only five longterm resource centers in entire country for trafficking victims, according to Paul who is part of the Alamo Area Coalition Against Trafficking, which includes federal, state, county and city law enforcement agencies and area nonprofits.
There is only one long term resource center in Texas, Freedom Place, which is limited to 30 available slots for victims, he said, leaving those who have fallen prey to trafficking with seemingly nowhere to turn.
Paul is working to create the Alamo Youth Center for at-risk youth to decriminalize the treatment of children who have been victimized by traffickers.
Still, every panelist agreed that it will take much more than the existing programs and gateways aiding victims of sex exploitation to effectively enact long-term change.
“There’s this theory that if we eliminate the demand, then the supply will go away,” Myers said. “There needs to be a cultural shift that porn is not okay, that we can’t buy women or men, that humans aren’t for sale.”
*Top image: A panel featuring professionals and experts on sex trafficking was formed after the screening of The Long Night. Photo by Scott Ball.