A mother addressed a crowd of about 45 Central Texas residents in Killeen at an event hosted by Texas! Save Our Youth seeking to bring awareness to the dangers and warning signs of sex trafficking in Central Texas. Janiece Charles told the gut-wrenching story of her daughter Natalie Fisher of Temple, who was murdered while being trafficked in 2016.
Charles was among 10 speakers at the Thursday night event, all of whom addressed the issue from a variety of perspectives. She said her daughter was the same as any other kid growing up. Natalie’s downhill trip started, her mother said, when she started sneaking out the back door and skipping classes — things many children do. Charles said she didn’t see the warning signs.
“She hit a lot of roadblocks,” she said. “She was not the same person when she was murdered.”
Kathy Ylostalo, program director for the ARK (Acceptance, Restoration and Kinship) Foundation and trainer in human trafficking told the audience that the warning signs are subtle, but they are there. They include visible tattoos with a name which can identify someone as “property,” burn marks, other small wounds, and anything else that can indicate that a minor is being forced into something.
“Traffickers pretend to fill any need that that child may have,” Ylostano said, from money to shelter to substance abuse.
“I didn’t even know sex trafficking existed,” Charles said. She said Natalie got pregnant early on and had two daughters. She said Natalie just wanted to be loved. “Natalie was no different. She wanted a boyfriend so much that she sold herself for it. We tried hard to save her.”
Ylostano, Charles and Killeen Councilwoman Shirley Fleming joined community activists and employees of the Killeen Independent School District to urge citizens to get out the message to friends, family and the public that there is a sexual trafficking hotline, 1-888-373-7888. Ylostano asked residents to get their phones out and enter the number into their contacts, and she did not continue until she was satisfied that all had done so, then in a bit of rhetorical flair asked the audience to repeat the number back to her. She said it was easiest to remember the number by repeating it as “eight-eight-eight, thirty-seven thirty-seven, eight-eight-eight.”
The 24-hour hotline takes names and any other information about potential victims and their alleged predators and will give advice and counseling to the caller. Ylostano said, however, that the caller might want to make a courtesy call to local police to give them a heads-up because the hotline would be calling them in any case within 24 hours.
Sex trafficking, she said, is difficult to prosecute if the victim will not talk about the crime, but she pointed out that under Texas law, anybody related to such activities with a minor, from someone providing shelter or food, to the pimp, to the “Johns” — the “consumers” she called them after apologizing for using such cold terminology — can be prosecuted for trafficking. In Texas it is also not required in court to prove that fraud or force was used in a trafficking case if a minor is involved, making prosecutions somewhat easier.
“There is no such thing as child prostitution,” she said.
Fleming has been a voice for neighborhood watch activities and this issue for years now. She is president of Texas! Save Our Youth. She was making sure enough chairs were in place, helping her co-volunteers get sign-in sheets filled out and handing out hugs left and right.
“We have to save our kids,” Fleming said. “They are our future.”
Ylostano described a partnership with the Killeen Police Department, Killeen ISD and other groups called the Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking Roundtable that specialized in training to look for warning signs. “They have plenty of trainers that can get out and train your groups.” She and Fleming emphasized that KISD Superintendent John Craft had assured the group that he and school board members would go through training, and that students would receive a different version of the training appropriate for minors.
“KiSD is on board,” panel members said.
Ylostano said that the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children put out numbers stating that 16.7 percent of runaways are likely victims of sex trafficking, and 86 percent of that 16.7 percent ran away from foster care homes. She also said Texas is number two in the nation for calls to the hotline and described what law enforcement calls the Texas Triangle. It’s a triangular area between Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio with an oddly shaped bump that juts out from it that represented Killeen.
She said military installations, borders and ports are hot spots in the trafficking world.
Parents were urged to visit schools as the school year starts and “stand outside the doors, and say hello to the kids as they walk by” while watching out for warning signs.
Charles said she was speaking out about Natalie’s murder because it was the right thing to do. Residents clearly agreed.
The event was held at the Killeen Community Center and the next meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. Oct. 25.