Modern Day Slavery: Nonprofit identifies sex trafficking survivors

Published on Saturday, 25 January 2014 21:48 - Written by By Tina Bausinger, Special to the Tyler Morning Telegraph

Sex trafficking often seems to be someone else’s problem. Many picture brothels in Thailand and Southeast Asia or in big cities, such as Paris, thanks to movies like “Taken.”

For those who remember Julia Roberts in the movie “Pretty Woman,” the glamorization of prostitution by movies and in music may prompt an initial reaction that it is something women choose.

Julie and Kenny Rigsby and Rachel Mathew, directors of For the Silent, know those are misconceptions. They became involved in the movement to preventing human trafficking after researching the topic.

The mission of For the Silent, a nonprofit faith-based organization in Tyler, is to “identify survivors of sex trafficking in lockup (incarceration), to see that they receive the services they desperately need and prevent their future re-victimization … (and) prevent the future trafficking of girls leaving the juvenile justice system and empower them to watch out for their peers.”

The organization operates from a small office on the top floor of the Austin Bank building in downtown Tyler. As homey as the office is — with comfortable couches, a coffee pot and a view that overlooks the city — it’s impossible for one moment to forget its serious purpose.

On a side table near the entrance, an iron birdcage symbolizing those entrapped by sex trafficking. A painting depicting a frightened woman with a hand over her mouth hangs on a wall.


Trafficking in Texas

The Rigsbys were working for a title company in Tyler when they graduated from The University of Texas at Tyler in 2007, but they knew they were destined for a higher calling. They weren’t sure what that calling would be, so they spent time in prayer.

“We were just crying out, ‘Lord what’s on your heart?’” Rigsby said.

The answer didn’t take long.

Rigsby began researching child sex trafficking, particularly involving young girls being sold into brothels.

“We just knew it was the heart of the Lord (for us) to help them,” he said. They quit their full-time jobs as a leap of faith.

At the time, Ms. Mathew, a good friend of the Rigsbys, was working as an orthopedic trauma nurse at a Tyler hospital. She watched the inspiration of For the Silent bloom and found her own desire to help victims. Ms. Mathew grew up on a church mission field. She said “it was not a huge departure” from her background for her to see a need and address it.

“For the first three years, we focused on trafficking overseas,” said Rigsby, who serves as executive director. “In 2010 we attended training where they taught what trafficking looks like in the states.”

He credits this with changing their focus to sex trafficking that takes place in East Texas. A detective speaking on trafficking in Nevada told them: “I’m seeing Tyler girls in Vegas,” Rigsby recalled. They were told that girls in the sex trade were being recruited by smooth-talking men and women promising them modeling work or jobs in video.

“They say that over 25 percent of calls to the national trafficking hotline come from the state Texas, and something like half of them come from Houston itself,” Ms. Mathew, the director of communication, said.

Houston is an ideal hub for illegal activities because Interstates 45 and 10, which often are used in drug trafficking, also are key routes for human trafficking, Ms. Mathew said. She noted that Tyler’s location just off Interstate 20 between Dallas and Shreveport also makes it an ideal location for sex trafficking.

Ms. Mathew said it was difficult to find out more about what was happening in sex trafficking locally. “The lack of statistics is overwhelming. We didn’t have numbers to support that there was a problem here in Tyler so we had to just look into it ourselves.”

Rigsby added, “There was not one organization in East Texas talking about the trafficking of American children.”

They decided to take action.


Education and Awareness

Because girls in juvenile detention centers often are targets for pimps and sex traffickers, Mrs. Rigsby, a certified chaplain, goes into the centers to get to know the girls being held there and to teach them about the dangers of sexual exploitation. She works to dispel myths that prostitution is glamorous.

“I have a Voice” is For the Silent’s 10-week course presented to teenage girls held in the juvenile justice system. The course builds awareness of how pimps recruit girls; emphasizes connections between substance use and exploitation; explains how the media helps create a demand for sexual exploitation; raises awareness of resources available to help girls; and works to improve their self-esteem.

Rigsby said sexual exploitation and trafficking is not new and is becoming a bigger problem.

“Why is (sex trafficking) coming up here? I think it’s always been here,” he said. “As Hollywood becomes more brazen with sex, when rap music glamorizes hoes and pimps, it’s here. There are three strip clubs in Tyler. … You know there is prostitution. There are classified ads for sex. It’s online now. I think it’s always been here, and if it’s increased, it’s because demand has increased.”


Ways to Help

Rigsby said one way to help For the Silent is to purchase a care bag that is given to girls at-risk of becoming a victim. The bags contain school supplies, “girl stuff,” and For the Silent’s contact information. Each girl leaving the juvenile detention center in Smith County receives one. Rigsby said the bags are made by women in India who have been rescued from sex trafficking.

Other possibilities include become a financial supporter through the “Business for the Silent” program, taking part in its Run for the Silent fundraiser and hosting an awareness or fundraising event.

For the Silent works with Refuge of Light (a safe home for girls who have been sexually exploited), East Texas Human Trafficking Coalition and law enforcement agencies. It hopes to set up branch offices in other East Texas counties.