Hundreds of community residents, elected officials and local organizations gathered together Sunday to bring awareness to a taboo subject — human trafficking.
The SaveOurChildren rally at Heritage Park featured several speakers, and numerous individuals and organizations set up camp underneath tents with signs showing their support for the cause. Supporters also marched down Santa Fe Drive and back with signs, followed by a free musical performance from Cade Holliday.
Organizers Scott and Chelsea Dollar said they put the event together to “unite the community and come together for a common cause that our future depends on rather than our past.”
Co-organizer Joshua Tarbay emceed the event, and helped line up the list of speakers representing city and county government as well as courts and nonprofits.
Keynote speaker Angela Thorne, of Mansfield, spoke of her personal experience as a survivor of human trafficking, saying she can never deny speaking out and raising awareness to this movement.
Thorne said she grew up in a household with a father who was a police officer and a mother who was a dedicated healthcare worker.
“They divorced when I was 10, and I grew vulnerable because they both worked all the time,” she said. “So I began seeking attention where I could get it and I found it on the internet.”
Thorne said she fell victim to sexual abuse several times and was exploited at the age of 14.
“When I was 17, I worked at a restaurant where I met hundreds of people daily. This is where most young women are targeted,” she said. “A man and his girlfriend invited me out one night and said I would be pampered by having all my expenses paid for.
“Without a second thought, I agreed to be picked up by the woman and went out. In this moment, I never thought I was in danger.”
Thorne said that was all it took for her to be trapped in the darkness of human trafficking.
“By the grace of God and quick wit, I fought my way out of the situation,” she said. “I am so very lucky to not have been drugged or beaten. I walked away with only psychological damage.
“Now I use my experiences to educate others here and in cities all over the U.S.”
Thorne also ticked off some numbers and observations based on research she has done, calling human trafficking the fastest growing criminal enterprise.
“As a society, we seem to be a few steps behind the perpetrators as to a lack of education on the issue at hand,” Thorne said. “Two thirds of victims of human trafficking are children of color. Eighty-eight percent of those who have gone missing and returned were children from the foster care system.”
Thorne said that a common misconception is that this issue doesn’t happen in the U.S.
“According to the World Population Review, the U.S. ranked as one of the worst [third] countries in the world for human trafficking,” she said.
Thorne cited some commonalities of victims of human trafficking, including a background of abuse, neglect, trauma, violence, family breakdown, homelessness, poverty or a combination.
“The internet has made human trafficking effortless through various online platforms,” Thorne said. “These outlets are breeding grounds for trafficking criminals. Social media apps and video game platforms make it easy for perpetrators to communicate without detection.”
The Parker County Children’s Advocacy Center was one of the many local organizations present, and CAC Executive Director Cheryl Bullock spoke about CAC’s mission.
“Children’s Advocacy Center, we are the front lines of child abuse in Parker County,” Bullock said.
CAC conducts forensic interviews for law enforcement and child protective services investigations, and also helps with victim support and advocacy, counseling and other support services. All services are free of charge to victims and their families.
Parker County District Attorney-Elect Jeff Swain said his office works cases involving child abuse all the time.
“They touch your heart, and it causes me to want to do the job that I do,” he said. “Everybody should be against child abuse. It should be universal.”
Parker County Judge Pat Deen said as a magistrate, he also sees these kind of cases.
“The hardest charges we see are crimes against children, and it’s one of the most difficult challenges we face emotionally,” he said.
Hudson Oaks Mayor Marc Povero has a 23-year background in law enforcement, previously serving as an officer in Fort Worth.
“Human trafficking hasn’t been on the radar until the last couple of years,” he said. “You look at what’s happening in nearby cities... it’s coming this way and we’ve got to be prepared for it.”
Povero, Deen and Weatherford Mayor Paul Paschall noted that city, county and law enforcement entities are committed to working together to fight human trafficking.
“My mission is to ensure that every person I meet knowns the signs of perpetrators, the signs of someone in danger and ways to escape if caught in a dangerous situation,” Thorne said. “The change starts in homes, in schools and churches. We must stop seeing this subject as taboo and begin to start this narrative today.”
For more information on CAC, visit www.cacparkercounty.org.