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Advocates work to change the conversation around human trafficking

Kirsta Melton (Photo by Jana Birchum)

She was living under bridges in San Antonio, Texas, the past year of her life a haze of heroin and selling sex to pay for more heroin.

It wasn't until she ran from a hotel, clenching the pants of a nearly 60-year-old man who paid to have sex with her, that she ended up in the system. She was arrested for the theft of her solicitor's pants, even though he admitted to police that he hired her to have sex with him.

She was 16. He walked away with no charges.

Her case was the first one of its kind to come across Kirsta Melton's desk. Melton, then the Bexar County assistant district attorney and now an assistant attorney general for the state of Texas, had appealed to her supervisor a year earlier to begin handling the district's human trafficking cases in addition to her caseload of family and domestic violence cases.

"It's totally traumatic," Melton said of taking on her first human trafficking cases. "But my way of dealing with that is always what I believe. I believe that God placed me in that position, at that time, for that moment."

In Melton's current position as assistant attorney general, she now also provides trainings in the anti-trafficking movement. As a trainer, Melton said she perseveres to help groups as varied as police officers, counselors, doctors, and business agencies all understand one commonality: the dynamics of manipulation and coercion, both visible and invisible, that shape the exploitation of a trafficked individual.

"My job is to stand and fight for what I believe to be the right thing," Melton said. "As a trainer, I'm trying to inspire other people to do the same. To take the blinders off – to stop seeing these people as prostitutes."

The 2015 Amnesty International proposal to decriminalize both the selling and purchasing of sex has fueled heated debate on the best ways for legislative and law enforcement bodies to approach prostitution and sex trafficking cases. This conversation, happening on a large scale internationally, is slower in the making on local, domestic levels, even in progressive cities like Austin.

Locally, trafficking survivors and criminal justice advocates like Melton work together on the first piece of this larger conversation: shifting institutional and individualistic perspective to understand that there is no fine, clear-cut line between a free agent in prostitution and a person who is trafficked for sex.

Within the 2013 Trafficking in Persons Report, the U.S. legal system defines sex trafficking as "when an adult is coerced, forced, or deceived into prostitution – or maintained in prostitution through one of these means after initially consenting."

While it is not uncommon for physical force to be used to intimidate trafficked individuals into performing sexual acts against their will, it is more common still for traffickers to wield a subtler display of force. The Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 recognizes that traffickers use psychological coercion in addition to physical coercion. Sometimes, this psychological coercion is less obvious – for many victims, it takes the form of a trafficker who preys on an underage teen's unstable home life. The poorly disguised trafficker in shining armor steps in to fill the void of a loving figure, and then threatens to withdraw that façade of love unless the child turns tricks to pull in money for rent.

To build upon this conversation, Melton often shares the story of her first case during trainings. The young woman, who may have been a heroin addict, and who engaged in the technical act of prostitution. But she was 16, and he walked away without punishment.

Before that, she was a child, born to a mother who was addicted to heroin and to a father who molested her between prison sentences; she was an eleven-year-old girl, running away for the first time and being taken in by a woman who became her first trafficker; she was fifteen, running away for the umpteenth time, this time taken in by her second trafficker, a man who got her hooked on heroin.

And when she was 16, still under the control of the man who used his heroin supply to ensnare her, she was arrested for stealing a man's pants after he solicited her – a minor, unable to engage in consensual sex with an adult under the law – to have sex with him.

"What about cases where they weren't tied up?" Melton asked. "What about cases where they went along compliantly? What about where the adult or kid victim thinks they've made a choice, and they're in love with their trafficker? Or they think, 'Well, this is better than the life I've been living.' So you've got to help other people understand that dynamic, and understand that just because this person is saying this or made this choice that appears to be a choice at that moment, it doesn't mean they weren't trafficked. Those are hard concepts."

As difficult as these concepts can be for some to grasp, none can speak truth to them as profoundly as survivors of trafficking themselves – this is why during trainings, Melton shares the stories of survivors whose cases she has worked. A powerful story in Melton's arsenal is that of the first human trafficking trial that she prosecuted.

Melton prosecuted two brothers who kidnapped and tied a 13-year-old child to the bed of their drug house, where they decided to keep and sell her to their customers. The girl was trafficked for two weeks. During that time, she was sold to about 20 people who each paid $25 to rape her.

It wasn't until after she had been untied and somewhat cleaned up in anticipation of a parole officer's visit that a customer, appalled by her treatment, ran her out of the house.

From that point, it was a long road before her story reached law enforcement officials that understood she had been trafficked. After she eventually opened up to her juvenile probation officer about the horrors she had endured, the officer reached out to multiple law enforcement agencies in hopes of establishing a case for the child. Where the FBI did nothing, Melton said, officials from the sheriff's office had recently been trained on human trafficking and recognized the case for what it was.

By the time the case moved forward to trial, Melton said, the girl had twin children of her own.

Melton said that on the stand, the girl was a genuine but wild card presence; her language was coarse, her appearance far from polished, and her accounts unedited. Still, the truth of her story and her resilience made a profound impact on the jury. Both brothers who trafficked her were sentenced to life in prison.

"The part of that trial that was so very awesome for me, as a prosecutor, was when we went back to talk to the jury, what they said was, 'Hey, we need you to tell her something,'" Melton said. "They said, 'We need you to tell her that we gave him life because she was worth it.' So even though this was a group of 12 people that came from completely different walks of life, that knew this kid had been in and out of juvenile – that was hostile at times on the witness stand – they weren't gonna let those things stop from valuing her as a person. They sent a wonderful message, in my opinion, to our community, which was: Every life. Every life. Is incredibly important."

Melton's voice is unwavering in representing the anti-human trafficking effort within the criminal justice system, but hers is not the only one.

Before Sergeant Bob Miljenovich of the Austin Police Department's Human Trafficking and Vice Unit could begin to advance the conversation surrounding trafficking within his own sphere of influence, he had to experience a shift in perspective of his own.

Bob Miljenovich (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Miljenovich said officers who deal with the problem out on the street only witness one microcosm of a victim's reality. Instead of seeing it all the way through, Miljenovich said, officers may only come across trafficked persons when a deal is being made or when there is a disturbance in a hotel or on the street.

"When I first came over here [to the Human Trafficking and Vice Unit] as a detective, when you start working the cases and you actually start learning more about the people that are involved, you learn more about their histories and you actually spend time talking with them and working the cases with them," Miljenovich said. "You start to see – it's like, 'Wow, there is a whole lot more to this story than just, you know, someone going out and committing a crime out on the street.' For me, it was a whole learning process, being exposed to it more and more."

As for whether the same shift in perspective has happened within local law enforcement as a whole, Miljenovich said he thinks that culture shift is still happening. "Not all officers, neither within our department nor around the country, are at that point where they all look at it the same way, as someone who's involved with that is not automatically a criminal," Miljenovich said.

These officers are not the only ones who struggle to discern a victim from who they would typically perceive as a criminal. Because the dynamics of coercion and manipulation are often so intricate and evasive, trafficked individuals are often dealt with as criminals, especially in situations void of the physical chains or signs of duress so frequently used to illustrate sex trafficking.

Miljenovich compared the current shift in law enforcement's perspective toward trafficking victims to the shift in how domestic violence cases were treated in the Seventies. Then, he said, it wasn't uncommon for police to visit a home on a domestic disturbance complaint and simply advise the couple to sort things out on their own.

"It took years and years to drive that change where society said, 'No, this is not acceptable, and we need to do something about it ... to have law enforcement actually go to somebody's house and take action, to change the way officers looked at that, to change the way the court systems would deal with those cases, and to also have a whole set of social services available for those spouses who had been beaten," Miljenovich said. "We're going through a very similar process, and so all those same little pieces, all those segments, need to have those same culture shifts."

Miljenovich said changing that mindset is a big part of what he does, in educating officers and while engaging with the community. He said he calls on community members to use their power to involve everyone, starting with elected officials, to create accessibility to services that both work preventatively, and treat survivors all the way through their long-term recovery.

"Traditionally, all of that has been looked at as, it's a law enforcement problem," Miljenovich said. "And I think time has shown that's not the case and that hasn't solved the problem. It's continued to get worse as time goes on. So I really believe that it's a community problem, and that we're just one piece of it."

This story was written in partnership with nonprofit Allies Against Slavery. Allies hosts its 2016 Slave-Free City Summit Fri.-Sat., April 22-23, at the For the City Center at 500 E. St. Johns. Find more details at

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human trafficking, 2016 Slave-Free City Summit, Allies Against Slavery

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