Earlier this year, the Texas Tribune’s Sold Out series examined how state policies – including a severely underfunded child welfare system – failed to help child sex-trafficking victims. Since then, lawmakers set aside a budget increase of more than $500 million for the foster care system, and the governor’s office approved new funds for trafficking prevention initiatives — which includes the state's first-ever Director of Human Trafficking and Child Exploitation.
Kim Grabert, who in July came to the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services from a similar agency in Florida, said in an interview with the Texas Tribune that she hoped to help multiple state agencies cooperate to help Texas trafficking victims.
The Tribune spoke with Grabert about what the state is doing to track down runaways, whether online data-mining could help find victims, what should be done about the lack of specialized homes for recovered teens, and what Texas can learn from Florida’s example. Below are her answers, which have been edited and condensed.
Texas Tribune: Why was your position created, and what do you see your specific role as being?
Kim Grabert: The position came out of a grant through the governor’s office, and really the position was created so that I can focus all my time on one topic.
My background and my strength is really in all the collaborative team-building, and the ability to kind of look at what’s going on everywhere, figure out where we can plug in, and where is the opportunity to leverage what’s already existing.
We’re going to introduce a screening tool, so [DFPS will] be using the same one that the governor’s office is using [and that] their grantees will be using, so we can get really good evaluation information out of that.
And then we’re going to be looking at our continuum of care and understanding where there’s opportunities to build specialized placements or specialized services [for trafficking victims], and how can we work with what already exists, through education, to grow the population that they’re serving.
TT: You came here from Florida. In your time here, have you seen things that Florida is doing on child sex trafficking that Texas is not, and are there things that Texas has to learn from other states?
KG: I think there are things that Texas is doing that are totally innovative and cutting edge and ahead of the curve on a national basis, and it’s really around this multi-disciplinary structure, the coordinated care model, that everybody in a local, regional area are targeted. That’s amazing, and it really brings in some of the work that’s occurred in other places, but it brings it in with an ability to look at what didn’t work in the other places and try to fix that here.
I definitely think there were unique aspects to Florida’s system that don’t exist here, and vice versa. So it’s hard to draw exact comparisons. They’ve done a lot of frontline training here. We want to build on that, and really give people who have an interest in this in-depth knowledge and really start to build subject experts around trafficking because the issue is really complex.
The one thing I see in both those states that I think is absolutely critical is the partnerships that exist among the players.
TT: When you say the players, who are you talking about?
KG: It’s the Legislature, it’s the state agencies who are involved ... so health departments, your child welfare, your juvenile justice entities, governor’s office. It is your non-governmental organizations, it’s your faith-based community, it’s your survivor leadership ... of course law enforcement.
The reality is we all want to help victims. And we also have to recognize that there’s different mission statements for all those people that are involved, and so collaborating becomes really important in making sure that we’re always doing what’s in the best interest of the child.
One of the things about this population is, treatment needs to be long-term. It can be extremely expensive ... Where’s the opportunity for prevention? Who’s treating the community children? What programs and services are able to cross across conservatorship and community, and where are all those opportunities to serve the entire spectrum of the population and not just carve out specific pieces?
TT: One of the issues that we have written about when it comes to trafficking is the difficulty surrounding child runaways. In your opinion, what can DFPS do better when it comes to tracking down runaways?
KG: I think they’re doing a good job right now. When I got here, I was able to sit in on some of the work groups that they have going on, to really look at those kids that are missing from care, where there may be issues that we specifically need to address about a provider – are there opportunities for training around those issues?
Sometimes people say runaway and they think, ok, well, it is what it is.
But for teenagers, just because they are 15, 16, 17 years old, they have the ability to make a phone call or they have the ability to ask for help. They really are high-risk victims when they’re on the street and running because they don’t see their own exploitation, and they don’t recognize the grooming. And they don’t recognize that they’re being targeted, and it makes them very vulnerable.
The whole implementation of these [DFPS] special investigators is awesome. The fact that they have these staff who are being assigned as soon as a child is reported missing, and to start working those cases, has really ramped up the idea of a sense of urgency.
The commissioner has spoken with regards to the criminal analyst position. I think that’s really the last piece that’s really going to help us, to have somebody that is really going to be utilizing social media and utilizing the Internet to reach out and find these kids.
TT: My last question, which you touched on earlier, is that a lack of specialized placements for recovered victims has been one of the biggest challenges that we’ve written about. What are you guys doing about that?
KG: There’s two issues around what you’re saying. One is that we have to recognize ... the majority of these children live in their community when they’re trafficked. They live in their homes; they live with a relative. They’re not in the custody of child welfare at the time they’re trafficked.
So we have to be able to identify youth that are in our conservatorship. We have to be able to identify them as having those at-risk factors and [make] sure that we are cognizant of providing services that are specific to their needs.
But again, we don’t want a boilerplate response. Every child that’s identified as a trafficking victim does not need a specialized safe house or safe home.
I’ve had the opportunity to work with a lot of survivors around the nation and even those that are very healed and who’ve been out of the life for a very long time and are survivor-leaders, they still have ongoing needs.
So we have to have a mechanism to be able to provide a response for those kids who are in the community and not in formalized care, whether that’s juvenile justice or child welfare. When parents or caregivers reach out and want help, there has to be a mechanism and to have funding to give for that type of treatment.
And there has to be an expectation by the community as a whole that government is not going to be able to fund the treatment of sex-trafficking alone and in totality. Everybody has to step up.
We need our churches, we need all of our agencies to come together and look at where are the opportunities to use the funding streams we have. Where can those entities and the community seek out foundations and where will they need to do fundraising? Where can individuals and corporations step in?
This has to be a community-wide response because of how comprehensive the needs are, and how long they are. They’re going to go past that child turning 18. And we have to make sure that we can transition them into adult programs or into adult services.
This is a huge issue. It’s easy to say we just need to do these couple of steps, but it’s bigger than that.