U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, brought together dozens of nonprofit leaders, community activists, law enforcement and attorneys for a roundtable discussion Monday morning about human trafficking, an issue that he said is “getting worse, not better.”
“We used to think this was limited to countries like Thailand and (other) foreign countries,” McCaul said at the For the City Center in North Austin. “Now it’s in our backyards, and it’s not just an urban problem, it’s a suburban problem.”
The congressman said a “very good outcome” of the roundtable was learning about a smartphone app being developed in Austin that uses predictive analytics and artificial intelligence technology to monitor kids’ online activity — with their parents’ permission — and identify warning signs of human trafficking.
“This is the playground now,” McCaul said while holding up a cellphone. “The private sector and technology is where a lot of the solutions lie, and what better place than Austin to apply cutting-edge advanced technologies.”
“This is a way to do it where it doesn’t violate the Constitution. It’s an opt-in system,” he said.
McCaul also pointed to the success of the Human Trafficking Rescue Alliance — a collaboration of local, state and federal law enforcement agencies and other organizations that identified hundreds of human trafficking victims in the Houston area last year.
A similar model could be implemented in Central Texas, potentially using grants from the U.S. departments of Justice and Homeland Security, he said.
Citing the need for legislative action, the previous chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee and current ranking Republican member on the Foreign Affairs Committee touted a bill he sponsored that would provide training for federal, state and local law enforcement officers on identifying victims of human trafficking based on a model developed by the Texas Department of Public Safety.
He also said more can be done in shutting down online platforms where human trafficking perpetrators prey on victims.
Community advocates highlighted other challenges facing victims of human trafficking, including a lack of quality caretakers and trauma counseling.
“The most critical thing that we’re missing here in Austin is an emergency assessment center,” said Lisa Knapp, the founder of The Austin 20, an organization that provides financial and other assistance to victims of human trafficking. “Where do these kids go to be assessed and to find the right placement for their long-term care?”
The group is opening a short-term shelter, operated by the nonprofit Upbring, to assess human trafficking victims and determine the best course for their long-term treatment, Knapp said.
“We need to wake up to (human trafficking), and we are waking up to it,” McCaul said.
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