Noel Busch-Armendariz

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.”

Around 26,000 Texans are sexually assaulted each year, but because of a lack of service funding and accessibility, only about half seek help, according to a new UT study.

The state spent about $42.8 million on sexual assault law enforcement and adult sexual assault recovery programs in 2010. That’s an average cost of around $3,000 per victim, said Bruce Kellison, an associate director of the research arm of UT’s IC2 Institute. He said more funding is needed to streamline access and services for sexual assault victims.

“The short story here is the state of Texas has identified [sexual assault recovery organizations] as grossly underfunded and has tried to find new revenue streams,” Kellison said, who was involved in the study conducted by the University’s Institute on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault.

Texas has 254 counties and only 83 rape crisis centers, forcing some victims to travel across multiple counties to seek emotional and psychological assistance, said Noel Busch-Armendariz, associate professor in the School of Social Work and lead investigator of the study. Victims also told Busch-Armendariz they left emergency rooms after discovering that the wait time for a forensic exam, which evaluates the physical condition of the person assaulted, was several hours.

“These programs are woefully underfunded,” Busch-Armendariz said. “We just need to give them a lot more support with regard to the work they are doing so we can give them the funding they need to meet all victims’ needs.”

To generate more revenue for these programs, the Texas Legislature passed the Sexually Oriented Business Fee Act in 2007. The Act requires all businesses in Texas that serve alcohol and allow nude dancing to pay a $5 fee for every person served. The fee, a portion of which will fund sexual assault prevention programs, was projected to raise $44 million over the first two years, according to The Associated Press. But the state comptroller has yet to release the funding because business owners sued, claiming the fee was unconstitutional.

The Texas Supreme Court ruled the fee constitutional Friday, bringing an unexpected victory for those in favor of the act, said Rick Gipprich, spokesman for Texas Association Against Sexual Assault.

“This is a very big win for us,” Gipprich said. “We will now have in place a sustainable funding source that will go directly to saving sexual assault survivors.”

It is likely that business owners will appeal the Court’s decision to the U.S. Supreme Court in the near future, which means the funding might not be released for another few years, Gipprich said.

“The projected path for the future of sexual assault programs is going to see the biggest hits in funding in the near future,” he said. “It comes at a perfect time if federal money is decimated.”

Gipprich said the money will help organizations market ways to prevent sexual assault and reach out to those seeking help, ultimately filling the gap.

“It’s not about us wanting money, money, money,” Gipprich said. “We work directly for, and with, hundreds of survivors and victims. It’s really about getting them the help they deserve.”

Printed on August 30, 2011 as: Appeal may delay funding for sexual assault victim resources

Forensic evidence in sexual assault cases often sits in evidence rooms unexamined, and UT’s School of Social Work professors are doing research for a Justice Department initiative to determine why.

Annette Burrhus-Clay, executive director of the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault, said the association is aiding the school’s research team in their efforts to benefit victims by examining the testing process. Burrhus-Clay said a police department may only test kits for unidentified assailants if resources are low, but she said this can be a problem.

“What we found in states that routinely test the rape kits, they’ll find that this DNA matches up with DNA that was in another case,” Burrhus-Clay said.

Forensic evidence from a sexual assault case is known as a sexual assault kit. Kits can include documentation about bruises or other trauma the victim experienced, hair follicles, bodily fluids, clothing and bedding. Many untested kits remain in property rooms of police departments instead of being tested in their crime labs.

She said testing the sexual assault kits can provide victims with closure.

“When it’s not done, I think that sets back a victim emotionally,” Burrhus-Clay said.

The research is funded by a grant from the National Institute of Justice, which is part of the Justice Department. The Institute is awarding $1 million to both Wayne County, Mich., and the city of Houston: the two places the projects are taking place. The Houston Police Department crime lab contracted UT’s School of Social Work and Sam Houston State University to conduct the research.

Noel Busch-Armendariz, associate social work professor and director of the Institute on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, is a co-principal investigator for the research efforts and said some untested kits date back 20 years.

“Our role is really to find out from the sexual assault victims the impact that processing the kits is going to have on their lives and how we should notify victims whose kits are or are not going to be processed,” Busch-Armendariz said.

Part of the School of Social Work’s role is to understand why kits aren’t being tested.

Testing a kit costs $1,200 and is part of regular police budget, Busch-Armendariz said, but she does not think funding is the issue.

“I think that the complexity of sexual assault crimes is the reason they haven’t been tested because a huge percentage of sexual assault crimes happen where the victim is known to or is related to the offender,” Busch-Armendariz said.

While UT’s researchers are focusing on how victims are affected, researchers at Sam Houston State University are examining why the criminal justice system is not testing some kits. William Wells, associate professor in the College of Criminal Justice at Sam Houston State and principal investigator for the project, said the Houston Police Department has worked with Sam Houston State on past projects.

Wells said the grant provides for “action research,” in which researchers play an active role with practitioners and policymakers. He also said there have not been many studies into how investigators use forensic evidence.

“We really truly don’t have an idea why these kits have gone untested,” Wells said. “We still don’t really understand the source of the problem.”

Forensic evidence in sexual assault cases often sits in evidence rooms unexamined, and UT’s School of Social Work professors are doing research for a Justice Department initiative to determine why.

Annette Burrhus-Clay, executive director of the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault, said the association is aiding the school’s research team in their efforts to benefit victims by examining the testing process. Burrhus-Clay said a police department may only test kits for unidentified assailants if resources are low, but she said this can be a problem.

“What we found in states that routinely test the rape kits, they’ll find that this DNA matches up with DNA that was in another case,” Burrhus-Clay said.

Forensic evidence from a sexual assault case is known as a sexual assault kit. Kits can include documentation about bruises or other trauma the victim experienced, hair follicles, bodily fluids, clothing and bedding. Many untested kits remain in property rooms of police departments instead of being tested in their crime labs.

She said testing the sexual assault kits can provide victims with closure.

“When it’s not done, I think that sets back a victim emotionally,” Burrhus-Clay said.

The research is funded by a grant from the National Institute of Justice, which is part of the Justice Department. The Institute is awarding $1 million to both Wayne County, Mich., and the city of Houston: the two places the projects are taking place. The Houston Police Department crime lab contracted UT’s School of Social Work and Sam Houston State University to conduct the research.

Noel Busch-Armendariz, associate social work professor and director of the Institute on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, is a co-principal investigator for the research efforts and said some untested kits date back 20 years.

“Our role is really to find out from the sexual assault victims the impact that processing the kits is going to have on their lives and how we should notify victims whose kits are or are not going to be processed,” Busch-Armendariz said.

Part of the School of Social Work’s role is to understand why kits aren’t being tested.

Testing a kit costs $1,200 and is part of regular police budget, Busch-Armendariz said, but she does not think funding is the issue.

“I think that the complexity of sexual assault crimes is the reason they haven’t been tested because a huge percentage of sexual assault crimes happen where the victim is known to or is related to the offender,” Busch-Armendariz said.

While UT’s researchers are focusing on how victims are affected, researchers at Sam Houston State University are examining why the criminal justice system is not testing some kits. William Wells, associate professor in the College of Criminal Justice at Sam Houston State and principal investigator for the project, said the Houston Police Department has worked with Sam Houston State on past projects.

Wells said the grant provides for “action research,” in which researchers play an active role with practitioners and policymakers. He also said there have not been many studies into how investigators use forensic evidence.

“We really truly don’t have an idea why these kits have gone untested,” Wells said. “We still don’t really understand the source of the problem."