Most of the young girls told similar stories: each started young, somewhere around 13-years-old, sold into sex slavery on San Antonio’s streets, often kept in line with violence, fear, and drug addiction. Over the course of just two months this summer, UTSA professor Bob Ambrosino and two dozen of his social-work students filmed at a furious pace to capture the stories of girls forced into child prostitution in San Antonio. Aiming to expose domestic minor sex trafficking at an intensely local level, last week they held a private screening of the hour-long documentary, titled Behind Closed Doors: Voices from the Inside at a downtown UTSA auditorium packed with social workers, professors, victims advocates, and local policy makers. “It should shake you to the core to think that modern day slavery is happening here in our community, in our state,” said state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, who’s been a driving force behind tougher sex-trafficking laws at the Legislature.
Texas lawmakers finally started to address the problem of human and sex trafficking in 2003, Van de Putte said, and by 2009 the Lege had created a statewide Human Trafficking Prevention Task Force to draft policy recommendations. According to the Texas Attorney General’s office, 20 percent of the 800,000 people trafficked each year in the U.S. pass through Texas, the majority through the I-10 corridor. Lawmakers this year passed a bill, spearheaded by Van de Putte, cracking down on child prostitution, giving life sentences to repeat offenders who force kids into sex work. The bill also expanded certain legal protections for victims, giving children forced into prostitution protections similar to victims in sexual assault cases. “This is about making sure these victims are truly treated as such, and not as criminals, while making sure these pimps face the toughest penalties. … Robbing someone of human dignity is the worst sort of crime,” Van de Putte said.
Days after the screening last week, reps with Shared Hope International, an organization founded by former Congresswoman Linda Smith to combat sex trafficking, picked up where the student film left off at a gathering of the National Association of Attorneys General downtown, releasing specific policy reports tailor-made for each state analyzing how each is fighting sex trafficking. The group estimates that some 100,000 minors are forced into prostitution across the country each year, with the average starting age of 13. Still, 19 states don’t have laws on the books making it a crime to buy sex from a minor.
Shared Hope doled out grades to each state according to how they’ve confronted the sex trafficking of minors — 26 states received failing grades, while Texas, one of the highest, was one of only four to receive a B. “A lot has happened in two years,” said Smith. “In Texas just this year we saw you changing penalties for buyers, we’ve started to take this really serious. You probably don’t want to come to Texas if you’re thinking about buying sex.”
Shared Hope estimates nearly 200 girls under 18 are sold for sex across Texas on any given weekend. Between 2007 and 2011, 369 children have been identified as domestic sex trafficking victims in Texas. And even while prostituted children are legally defined as victims here, 63 minors were arrested on average each year between 2006 and 2009 on prostitution charges in Texas, the group says.
GOP efforts to defund Planned Parenthood, going back at least as far as 2005, are finally starting to bear fruit. Apart from the Legislature this year chopping off nearly two-thirds of the state’s $100 million biennial budget for basic family planning services for low-income Texans (a tactic many conservatives championed as a way to ensure Planned Parenthood see none of the funds), the state is finally poised to kick Planned Parenthood out of its Women’s Health Program for good. In doing so, it may have imploded one of Texas’ most successful programs for providing reproductive health care to low-income women and preventing unplanned pregnancies to boot.
The Women’s Health Program, a widely successful Medicaid waiver program providing contraception and general reproductive health care, like preventative breast and cervical cancer screenings, to thousands of low-income and uninsured women across the state is set to expire by the end of the year. And those in Planned Parenthood’s corner worry the feds are wary of approving the program now that Texas has inserted guiding language specifically excluding funding from groups like Planned Parenthood, which provides roughly half of all those services statewide, in an attempt to punish groups linked to abortion.
Last Thursday, the state’s Health and Human Services Commission tried to quash reports that the feds may not renew the program, sending off an email to state lawmakers claiming that any such rumors were unfounded. While HHSC applied for renewal in October, HHSC says the federal government told the commission last week that while it’s still evaluating the program it plans to give it a one-month lifeline, extending it through January 31. Publicly, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and HHSC are mum on the issue. A spokesman with CMS, the federal body that oversees the program, told QueQue this week only that the agency’s reviewing the Texas’ application and that no decision has been made regarding any extension. That seems to clash with word out of HHSC that the feds agreed to kick the can down the road for another month. “At this point, we’re still waiting for a response,” HHSC spokeswoman Stephanie Goodman told QueQue this week.
Soon after the Lege created WHP in 2005, many of the same lawmakers, like Greenville Republican Bob Deuell, tried the same approach, hoping to block Planned Parenthood from any Medicaid funding. At the time, it sparked a legal battle that led to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that Planned Parenthood could stay in the Medicaid game and keep its funding, provided it establish separate entities for its family-planning side and its abortion-services side. Planned Parenthood established organizations with separate accounting, separate boards, and separate locations.
The group and its supporters in the Lege now insist the new rules excluding providers violate federal Medicaid law, and since the program’s new language began to emerge earlier this year they’ve warned that Texas is poised for a head-on clash with CMS, which has already rejected similar measures in other states.
“The law is pretty clear about this, that the state is not allowed to just exclude providers,” said state Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, this week. “This is about one thing: a faction that is in control of the Legislature that has it in for one particular provider, Planned Parenthood. It’s really shortsighted given they provide health care for half the women in this program.”
And there’s a reason those like Villarreal call the WHP’s apparent end a “tragedy.” According to the Texas’ own numbers, the program helped the state avoid some 17,000 Medicaid-paid unplanned pregnancies through family planning programs, not abortions, within the first three years of operation, saving the state $120 million. For Texas, it’s a bargain deal: under the program, for every $10 in free services a woman gets, the feds pay $9 while the state chips in $1.
Without WHP funding, the Planned Parenthood Trust of South Texas would be left with a $1.3 million hole in its budget, said Vice President of Public Affairs Yvonne Gutierrez, forcing them to close one of their San Antonio family planning clinics along with a Kingsville clinic, neither of which provide abortions. Planned Parenthood will likely sue if the language excluding those who “affiliate” with abortion providers flies and the feds grant the waiver, she added. But many fear the current language will keep the program from moving forward at all. If that happens, Parenthood won’t even have a chance to fight in the courts. “We couldn’t sue because there’s effectively no program to sue over. … If Texas doesn’t come to the table and start to negotiate with CMS, we’re afraid they’ll just reject the program. Texas will have ended it,” Gutierrez said. That would leave over 100,000 low-income women without the preventative health care they’ve depended on for the past five years. •
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