AUSTIN, Texas — Human trafficking -- it's a crime that's not always easily seen. Victims don't always ask for help and Texas children are being targeted.
While January is known as Human Trafficking Awareness month, it is an issue year-round.
That's why volunteers with Partnerships for Children's YES (Youth Empowerment and Success) Mentoring Program are specially trained to spot the signs of human trafficking, in addition to providing advice, help and support to youth as they navigate their way into adulthood.
The YES Mentoring program provides mentors for youth in CPS aged 14 and older as they're learning to become adults. Mentors work with their mentee in small groups in a series of classes to teach them new skills and let them try new experiences:
- Financial Literacy
- City of Austin: Smart Tips Program and Utilities 101
- Filing Tax Returns
- Baby 101: The Good, The Bad, The Baby
- Healthy Cooking on a Budget
- Yoga and Mindfulness
"It's really important anyone has someone they can talk to that's a trusted adult, that they can go to with life's questions. I always say that turning 18 in the best of situations is traumatic. It's a difficult and exciting time in life," said Erin Argue, director of mentoring services. "The mentor could say, 'Hey, that seems to me like that doesn't quite feel right.' A lot of our kids are going out and trying to get jobs.They're 18 and they're looking at Craig's List and anyone can put anything on Craig's List."
Argue said for the last near seven years that the YES Mentoring Program has been so active that almost 200 youth have completed the program. At any given time, 70 youth are enrolled in the program.
Julia Vazquez has been a YES mentor for two and a half years. She said it's important that the youth have adults who are a soundboard for children in the foster care system.
"Most of us are pretty lucky in that we have adults in our lives that can guide us in some way and they don't have that so there's a lot of uncertainty, there's a lot of, 'where am i going to live next? Am I going to meet up with my family?'" said Vazquez. "The uncertainty most of these kids don't have a stable home life, and so, thinking about going to college, or pursuing a career is a little bit more difficult because they don't know where to reach out to find resources to do those things."
Vazquez too knows to keep a close eye for signs of human trafficking or anything that may "seem too good to be true" in the youth that she mentors. She shared that one mentee's recap on the man she had been seeing was beginning to become concerning.
"I don't think she realized that was a possibility, she met a guy, he sounded like Prince Charming. he had a job, he had a nice car, an apartment, and he took her to fancy dinners," said Vazquez. "Then she starts telling me a bit more about him because this is her first boyfriend."
As the teen's mentor, Vazquez gave her advice.
"Just trying to open her eyes to the fact that maybe this isn't what it seems? She later didn't talk about him as much, he might have been turned off by the fact she [the teen] was asking questions," Vazquez said.
According to the University of Texas Slavery Mapping Project, there are more than 78,000 youth and minors who are victims of sex trafficking in the state. The National Human Trafficking Resource Center reports that Texas accounts for almost 10 percent of all the calls made to their hotline, second behind California.
For the safety of the mentees, class locations are kept private. If you are interested in becoming a YES mentor, click here to get started.