In continuation of Mayor Sylvester Turner’s longstanding efforts to combat human tracking in the city of Houston, the mayor’s office announced an expansion to its Anti-Human Trafficking Division on Monday. Now named the Office of Human Trafficking and Domestic Violence, the division will continue its anti-human trafficking efforts while also addressing issues of domestic violence in the Bayou City. “We’re adding domestic violence to this office’s responsibilities because both domestic violence and human trafficking are forms of gender-based violence,” Turner said during a press conference Monday afternoon. 

The change is, in part, a result of the city’s increased involvement in local cases of domestic violence during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. As advocates warned when stay-at-home orders were first initiated, there has been a global escalation of domestic violence as individuals are trapped at home with their abusers. Here in the Bayou City, calls to the Houston Area Women’s Center emergency hotline have increased by 40 percent, and requests for protective orders have increased by 90 percent.

According to the official 19-page strategic plan, The Office of Human Trafficking and Domestic Violence will address domestic abuse by expanding its resources, especially in high-risk communities and service deserts; by creating skills development and economic security programming; and by promoting civic engagement through citywide campaigns. The city also plans to establish a Women’s Commission to advance this policy work, among other responsibilities, per the strategic plan.

Specifics on programs and initiatives will be announced in the coming months. However, special emphasis during the conference was placed on combating the financial and economic abuse victims of both domestic violence and human trafficking face. Efforts on this front include the launch of MAKR Collective, a program in partnership with Houston-based nonprofit design house Magpies & Peacocks that will provide survivors with the skills and tools to become financially independent. “Without this critical support, oftentimes survivors find it hard to leave and often return to their abusers,” said City Council member Abbie Kamin, who has been involved in the city’s efforts. “Economic independence is key to breaking the cycle of abuse.”  

Through it all, the office will continue its previous anti-human trafficking work (Phase 2 began in 2018 and has since been completed). The city’s plan became the first comprehensive municipal response to human trafficking in the country when it was announced in 2015. Last year the city shared its practices and strategies with officials from several U.S. cities as well as officials from Afghanistan, Italy, and Latvia, Houston Public Media reported. Earlier this year, Houston became the first major U.S. city to pass a hotel ordinance requiring employees be trained on human trafficking.

Just as with the Houston’s anti-trafficking division, the new Office of Human Trafficking and Domestic Violence will be headed by Minal Patel Davis, the city’s special adviser on human trafficking. Patel Davis has been with the city’s anti-human trafficking efforts since the beginning, and it was Patel Davis and her division that Turner turned to when the city began its Covid anti-abuse efforts this April. 

The announcement of the departmental expansion is fitting as September 13 marked the 26th anniversary of the Violence Against Women Act.

More info on the Office of Human Trafficking and Domestic Violence can be found at humantraffickinghouston.org.

If you are in need of help, call the Houston Area Women's Center 24/7 hotline at 713-528-2121 or text 713-528-3625. You can also call the National Domestic Abuse Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.