McKinley’s trafficker was never caught by police. Her family moved, and the abuse stopped.
The trauma remained.
McKinley became a chronic runaway as a teenager. Then, she met another predator.
“I was 15-years-old just out at an apartment complex at the pool waiting for friends to come home,” McKinley said.
She said she didn’t know at the time the man would eventually force her into the sex trade.
“It seemed safe because there were other girls that were my age with him,” McKinley said.
Austin police Detective Doug Novielli said this is how many sex trafficking girls fall victim in Austin today.
“It’s steady throughout the year,” Novielli said. “Sometimes it's somebody they know that might be involved in it so they’re introduced into it that way. Sometimes they meet other kids who have been surviving through that.”
Austin police count only a few dozen child sex trafficking cases per year, but workers at the not-for-profit service “Refugee Services of Texas” said they talk to 10 to 15 girls per month.
“Starting in April, the State of Texas really began to pay attention to child sex trafficking. So, they really took initiative in bringing all of these service providers and first responders at the table,” said Rachel Alvarez, STEP Coordinator for Refugee Services of Texas.
Identifying the crime doesn’t stop it. These cases are different from other types of criminal enterprises. It’s more difficult to prosecute.
The victims are often criminals: Juvenile delinquents, runaways, vulnerable kids who try to avoid the law.
“A lot of times they won’t tell us the whole story,” said Abbey Fowler, Travis County assistant district attorney.
Fowler is the prosecutor for all human trafficking in Travis County.
Out of the approximately 100 known victims identified by non-profits each year, only 11 child sex trafficking cases were brought to court in Travis County since 2016.
“The detectives have been working really hard at trying to form relationships and really making sure that they can build a trust so slowly, they can find out what's been happening to these children,” Fowler said.
Of the 11 cases brought to court, only three defendants served jail time. The other eight got probation or their charges were waived or dismissed.
“The first and biggest reason really is based on the victim. It’s their story and if we don't have the nerve to tell their story we can't prove it to a jury,” Fowler said.
Police and prosecutors said the survivors often run away or refuse to be a witness. In Austin, immigration also plays a role.
Workers with the Refugee Services of Texas said U.S. citizen children who are trafficked are sometimes afraid to speak out if their parents are in the country illegally.
“I have had minors come and speak to us and say, ‘My mom doesn't want to work with law enforcement,’ or ‘I didn't call police because I'm scared,’” Alvarez said.