The girls Ellen Parsons wants to help don’t tell.
They don’t trust adults. They don’t use words like pimp or prostitute. And they don’t view themselves as victims of an ugly, multimillion-dollar sex business that exploits hundreds of thousands of adolescents every day. Instead, Ellen says, they see the trade as a way to survive and remain independent in a system that has often misunderstood their struggles — and in the worst cases treated them as criminals.
Ellen and I sat in her office at Lifeworks, a youth advocacy center in South Austin where she works as a counselor. I shifted in my seat as I tried to grasp her words.
The term sex trafficking tends to conjure images of girls and young women brought into the country from faraway places, lured by opportunity, forced by abductors. But over the past decade, we have come to realize that some of the most vulnerable victims of the vicious rings that travel across the United States do not come from abroad. They were born and live here.
Right now in Austin and across the country, the two options these adolescents tend to face are time in juvenile detention or placement within the catchall net of shelters operated by state child protective services or private nonprofits. These places cater to abused and neglected children, domestic violence survivors and their families, but social workers say they are not equipped to handle the complex trauma of trafficking survivors.
And most have not yet developed ways to screen for sex trade victims.
Through special training and years of experience, Ellen has found her own ways to tell apart the young girls and teens caught in the life.
Sometimes, she listens for the subtext in their conversation. Often, she watches what they carry. Wads of cash they stuff under a mattress or in the dark corner of a drawer. Expensive cell phones. Brand-named clothing. “Those things they could not have afforded on their own,” she says.