DALLAS MORNING NEWS

Byline: Elise Schmelzer

Every night in Dallas County, an estimated 400 teens are on the streets selling sex. For nine years, Amanda Jones was among them.

Jones says she was running away from an abusive home at age 15 when she got into the wrong car after a party and was kidnapped. Her abductor took her to a house in South Dallas, raped her and forced her into prostitution.

With no identification and nowhere to go, Jones said, she became invisible.

“I didn’t feel like living,” she said. “And I didn’t know how to escape.”

After nine years and the birth of her daughter, Jones left the sex industry with help from New Friends New Life, a Dallas nonprofit that works with more than 1,200 trafficking victims and sexually exploited women every year.

Since then, trafficked teens have begun to benefit from new laws treating them as victims instead of criminals and a new shelter for exploited girls is expected to open in Dallas in July.

The Letot Girls’ Residential Treatment Center will be the first long-term treatment facility in the Dallas area. The 96 girls who will live there will spend between six months and a year at the 55,000-square-foot center on Denton Drive in northwest Dallas, said Keith Armwood, superintendent of the Letot Center.

Previously, girls could spend up to 90 days at the adjacent co-ed Letot Center for runaway youth or were sent to other long-term facilities across the state.

“We could just put a Band-Aid on over there,” Armwood said. “Here we can do real, lasting treatment.”

The girls’ center will provide classes, professional development and an array of therapy options including fine arts, yoga and cooking, Armwood said.

Long-term therapy is essential for girls who have been trafficked, Jones said. The girls and women she mentors through New Friends New Life have been brainwashed, beaten and taught they are worth nothing more than the money they earn.

“As a victim you start to feel like ‘This is what my life was meant to be,’” she said. “I see in their eyes the same hurt and fear that I felt.”

The $9.4 million girls’ center was funded entirely through private donations to the Letot Center Capital Foundation. After construction finished, the foundation donated the center to the Dallas County Juvenile Department, which will provide a $2.25 million annual operating budget.

But a new law should help projects like the girls’ center find public funding. The Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act will support anti-trafficking efforts by using money collected from traffickers and child predators to help start future shelter projects.

Sponsored by Republican Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Rep. Ted Poe, R-Humble, and passed on May 26, the act increased criminal fines on convicted traffickers and child predators. The money will create about $60 million in federal grants that state and local governments can use for more shelter space, specialized court programs and law enforcement programs targeting human trafficking.

“This law allows centers like this to apply for more grants to keep doing what you do,” Cornyn said Monday at an event promoting anti-trafficking efforts at the girls’ center.

The law also changes the focus of criminal prosecution from the sex workers to those who traffic or buy trafficked labor or sex, Poe said. With the passing of the act, law enforcement has more power to seize traffickers’ assets and use the money for victim restitution.

“The days of ‘boys being boys’ are over,” Poe said. “We’re going to prosecute.”

However, Texas still has a long way to go in fighting sex trafficking, said Katie Pedigo, executive director of New Friends New Life.

“We need to make Texas a no-tolerance zone for those who prey upon our children,” Pedigo said. “They need to know our women and girls are not for sale.”

Since Jones left sex work, she began studying human resources and social behavior at Collin College. She also started volunteering as an anti-trafficking advocate and mentor through New Friends New Life and nonprofit Vashti’s Voice.

Sharing her story is the best way to use her nightmare for good, she said.

“I see the posters of the girls going missing every day, and I know where they’re going,” Jones said. “If I don’t speak up, who will?”