Bob Miljenovich

The White House established a task force last month designed to increase federal agencies’ ability to identify and rebuild the lives of human trafficking victims in the U.S. Locally, Austin social workers, law enforcement and government agencies join forces to combat human trafficking.

Noel Busch-Armendariz, an associate dean for research in the School of Social Work, said one of the biggest problems with human trafficking is it often goes undetected.

“It’s a big hidden problem, with both labor trafficking and sex trafficking,” Busch-Armendariz said. “We think there is a lot more going on, but it’s hard to uncover.”

The Austin Police Department’s human trafficking unit helps investigate suspected cases of trafficking, which are usually reported by victims or professionals who come into contact with them. When investigating possible trafficking cases, officers look for signs of physical and mental coercion in the victims.

“We’re really looking at whether or not they have the freedom to really make those choices that are being made,” Sgt. Bob Miljenovich said. “Are they free to come and go? Are they being forced to pay off some type of debt, or is there some other way they’re being held, even if it’s not physically? Those are the things we look for.”

Many trafficked individuals are foreign-born and brought into the United States, according to Linda Edwards Gockel, a spokeswoman for Texas Health and Human Services. Once rescued, these victims are considered as refugees and become eligible for many federal health-care and financial services.

“Texas has the largest number of refugees in the country, with roughly 6,000 to 9,000 settled in the state,” Gockel said.

Social service providers assist the victim in the process of mental healing and finding a safe place to live, Busch-Armendariz said.

“Law enforcement is really in charge of investigating the crime, but the social worker actually is the person charged with supporting the victim through that process emotionally and psychologically,” Busch-Armendariz said.

Funding for housing, language, social and medical services for victims may come from a mix of federal and state agencies, according to Busch-Armendariz.

Miljenovich said there is a shortage of safe and immediate housing for trafficking victims who are rescued in Austin.

“The biggest area that we have trouble with is having facilities that can take care of the victims once they’re found and taken out of the situation,” Miljenovich said.

Miljenovich said facilities that provide both immediate housing and medical attention are essential because they provide a higher level of security for victims who may need further treatment. 

“You don’t want a facility where people can just come and go, because sometimes [victims] don’t really agree that it’s best that they leave that lifestyle, maybe because they’re on drugs or feel they have no other choice,” Miljenovich said.

Laurie Cook Heffron, research coordinator in the School of Social Work, said public education is important to help end human trafficking, especially for foreign-born victims.

“There’s less focus on whether there are people exploited in our hometowns on construction sites or in migrant farm work, and I think this is partly due to the anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States,” Heffron said. “One of the things all of us can do is learn a little bit about it and educate ourselves.”

Anti-human trafficking efforts during the Formula 1 weekend are a focus for law enforcement units who suspect an increase in trafficking over the race weekend. 

Over the course of the F1 weekend, there could be anywhere between 200 to 300 thousand tourists in Austin, according to Austin Police Commander William Manno.

According to Laurie Cook Heffron, School of Social Work Institute for Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault research coordinator, there is a concern shared by many people that with any increase in visitors to a city, there will potentially be an increase in the number of people being exploited.

“The logic is that if there is an increase in the commercial sex industry, there could also be an increase in human trafficking for sex within that industry,” Heffron said. 

Last year’s police department’s anti-trafficking efforts included collaborations with many local nonprofits to create Cap Metro awareness ads and other city-wide efforts. Bob Miljenovich, Austin Police Department Human Trafficking and Vice Unit sergeant, said these efforts were successful in raising awareness but did not lead to any trafficking-related arrests. This year, the human trafficking unit will take a much more under-the-radar approach to overturning sex trafficking operations, Miljenovich said. 

“We’re keeping it quiet and not putting it out to the public,” Miljenovich said. “As far as the public stance, [the community] can do more of an education and outreach type thing...This means really looking for people that look like they’re not free to leave, that look like they’re being controlled, manipulated.”

Business freshman Brianna Spiller said she does not know much about the suspected increases in trafficking over F1 weekend, but suspects that it would be a huge problem.

“Of course it’s extremely important,” Spiller said. “I will probably look it up and see what goes on during a Formula 1 weekend … I definitely think people who are going should protect themselves and know what to look for.”

Miljenovich said the best thing for locals to do to contribute to anti-trafficking efforts over the race weekend is to raise awareness.

“It’s something that’s commonly looked at by citizens that’s something that’s always happening somewhere else, or that always happens in the movies,” Miljenovich said. “It’s very surprising to people in Austin that it happens here too … [The community can help by] stepping up and saying that human trafficking is not condoned so that we don’t have the environment in our city where it’s easy for that to happen.”