Arletta Grant doesn’t remember a lot about that time in her life. “I blocked it out,” she said.
But some things she can’t forget: “At nighttime, he would make me come into his room.”
“He” was an older male cousin who lived with her family in south Fort Worth. The physical and sexual abuse started when she was 11 and didn’t stop until Grant ran away at 13. After that, Grant’s family gave up custody to the state because they thought they couldn’t handle her. She spent the rest of her childhood in a rotating series of foster homes.
“That’s when I really started giving it [sex] away like it was candy,” Grant said. “I was just looking for love, looking for somebody to want me, looking for closeness. I was having sex with whoever. Since I was molested, that was the only way I could feel close to somebody.”
The year she turned 18 was a milestone for Grant. She became an adult, and she became an addict, hooked on heroin, crack cocaine, and methamphetamine.
She also started going to clubs and having sex with men for money. And that meant that her legal status changed in another way: Officially, she stopped being a victim and became a criminal.
In the eyes of most police and the general public in this country, that second category is where most prostitutes belong. Few police departments make a habit of arresting the customers of prostitutes, though they too are breaking the law. Few intervention programs exist to help prostitutes break out of that lifestyle.
But across Tarrant County, people in several walks of life — researchers, some law enforcement officers, social workers, a district judge — see a different pattern, a different reality that they are trying to share with lawmakers, law enforcement, users of prostitution, and prostitutes themselves.
They see prostitutes, by and large, as victims of sexual abuse and sexual trafficking — crimes committed against the women both as children and adults.
Dr. Tomi Grover is an adjunct professor at Dallas Baptist University and law enforcement trainer in human trafficking. She estimated that over 90 percent of prostitutes in this country were sexually abused as children.
Most prostitutes get into that business when they’re still minors — in many cases, before they even entered their teens, explained Dr. Vanessa Bouché, an assistant professor of political science at Texas Christian University, who specializes in human trafficking research. The average age of girls who are compelled into prostitution is 12 to 14.
“The same exact women who were victims … are now criminals,” Bouché said.
State District Judge Brent Carr said that about 500 women are convicted of prostitution each year in Tarrant County.
But accurate numbers are hard to find. By one estimate, only about a quarter of sex trafficking and prostitution cases are actually reported.
A Fort Worth law enforcement officer, who asked not to be named, said law enforcement statistics aren’t always reliable “because arrests aren’t always made.” But it’s also true, he said, that few city officials are interested in studying the extent of the problem.
“Why would a city manager want to do a study on prostitution? Why would you want to bring it to light?” he asked.
Melissa Ice believes sex trafficking is a pervasive problem in Fort Worth. She’s the director of The Net, a faith-based nonprofit that serves the city’s homeless population, low-income neighborhoods, and sexually exploited women.
There’s not enough money allocated to the issue in Fort Worth to accurately measure its prevalence and make people sit up and take notice, she said.
Carr is one of those who has taken note. For years he watched women pass through his court in an unending repetition of arrest, conviction, sentences that usually amount to time served, release, and return to the streets or shops to begin the cycle again.
In 2011 he convinced the county to start a rigorous two-year intervention program that includes housing, curfews, drug testing, required counseling, and regular returns to his court to report progress or regression. Two years later, a state grant helped the county expand the program significantly. It’s called RISE, for Reaching Independence through Successful Empowerment.
RISE is still a small, rigorous program that only a handful of women have thus far successfully completed. But he and others are convinced that in the long run it will save women while also saving the county money because fewer women end up in jail.
“Houston is the worst — the city is built on it [sex trafficking and prostitution]. But it happens a lot in Fort Worth,” said Dottie Laster, a U.S. Department of Justice human trafficking consultant and law enforcement trainer.
“They aren’t addressing the problem,” she said of Fort Worth. She believes police need to change the way they conduct prostitution investigations, to focus on the buyer instead of the seller.
But it’s also up to the community to demand more of its elected officials and take a stand against sexual exploitation, Laster said. “It shouldn’t be cool to talk about ‘pimping’ and ‘boys will be boys’ going to strip clubs.”
Ice agreed. “People have to know what’s going on,” she said. “Prostitution is modern-day slavery.”