Fort Worth, Texas,
14:21 PM

Julia’s Act: Daughter’s Death Spurs Cleburne Family’s Fight to End Human Trafficking

Cook Children’s experts explain what parents need to know about this hidden crime

Growing up in Cleburne, Texas, life was not always easy for Julia. As a young child with autism, she suffered physical abuse at the hands of her biological family. The violence was so bad, it left scars. She was placed into foster care, and at age 12 was adopted into a loving family.

“She was always so happy. Everybody was her friend,” said Mary, Julia’s adoptive mother. “She did not know a stranger.”

Julia was the kind of person who trusted people easily. So years later, when a young woman reached out to her on social media, she didn’t think much about the individual wanting to be her friend. She began to correspond and eventually started meeting her at a local park where Julia liked to skateboard.

“We were so protective of her, and only started letting her go to the park by herself when she was 17,” said Mary. “Still, I would drive around to check on her. She would always say, ‘Mom, why are you always worrying?’ I would tell her, ‘That’s my job.’”

Mary was worried about the new friend in Julia’s life. Something seemed off. But, like most teenagers, Julia didn’t want to listen to her parents. After all, she had finished high school early and was working toward her dream job as a nursing assistant. Julia completed school in December, but hadn’t graduated yet. It was the week of prom when Mary last heard her daughter’s voice.

“She called me after her job interview and told me how it went, and then she said, ‘I’m going to stay with my friend for a couple of days, but I’ll be back in time to do prom stuff later this week,’” said Mary.

At the time, Julia was 18 and Mary knew she couldn’t tell her daughter what to do. Still, she didn’t like the plan.

“I said, ‘Okay, I can’t tell you not to, but I don’t want you to go,” she explained.

At 7:30 the next morning, two state troopers arrived at Mary’s home. They told her and her husband that Julia’s body had been found on a tollway in Dallas. From there, the truth about Julia’s friend unraveled. She was what law enforcement officials call a “bottom girl,” someone who manipulates and baits vulnerable victims into human trafficking. It turned out that Julia’s ‘friend’ had been paid by a human trafficking ringleader to deliver the teen for commercial sex trade. Mary believes Julia was thrown out of the vehicle when she would not comply.

Julia died on May 2, 2018, just 20 days before her graduation.

“Two hours later, my phone rang. It was the person who interviewed Julia calling to let her know she got the job,” said Mary. “That broke my heart all over again.”

This month, a grand jury in Collin County is expected to hear the case against the ringleader charged in Julia’s death. If the grand jury decides to indict, Mary says it will be the first ‘Death by Human Trafficking’ trial in Texas.

Mary and Chris are hoping their daughter’s death can save the lives of others. Working with Rep. DeWayne Burns, R-Cleburne, they’ve created a bill that, if signed into law, will require driver’s education students across Texas to be educated about human trafficking. It’s called ‘Julia’s Act.’

On April 7, Julia’s family testified in favor of the act in front of the House Committee on Licensing and Administrative Procedures. In an uncommon move, the act was voted out of the committee the same day, setting forth a high probability it will move to the full Texas House for a vote.

“People need education. They have to know that this happens. I wasn’t educated, and now I’m looking every day to see what else I can learn,” said Mary. “I felt like, if we could get it into the schools, then maybe kids would listen since it’s coming from someone else besides their parents.”

What is Human Trafficking?

A lot of confusion exists about human trafficking. It is not the same as human smuggling, and it rarely involves victims being kidnapped at random. Human trafficking is the process of “trapping people through the use of violence, deception or coercion and exploiting them for financial or personal gain.” Trafficking victims can be exploited for sex and/or labor. It occurs anytime anything of value is exchanged for sex, such as money, food, shelter or gifts.

At Cook Children’s Medical Center, the Child Advocacy Resources and Evaluation (CARE) Team treats human trafficking victims under the age of 17.

“Usually, these are kids who have already been abused. They may have a history of sexual abuse, or are runaways because they don’t have a stable home or are in foster care,” explained Stacey Henley, RN, nurse manager of the CARE Team. “We also see a lot of LGBTQ kids whose parents kicked them out because of their sexual orientation.”

Henley describes human traffickers as ‘master manipulators’ who prey on the vulnerable.

“They are really, really good at understanding human needs and behaviors,” said Henley. “I know that sounds crazy to say, but they are looking at what the person needs, whether it’s love, food or a place to live and they’re fulfilling that need.”

She says knowing how many human trafficking victims are out there is nearly impossible because it’s heavily underreported. Part of the issue is that those being exploited often don’t see themselves as victims.

“A lot of times, the victim will say the trafficker is their boyfriend. They’re being manipulated, which is part of the problem because often teachers and medical professionals are looking for someone who’s wide-eyed and mouthing, ‘Help me,’ but that’s not what happens,” Henley said. “They’re not going to say, ‘I need help, get me out of this,’ so we have to look for other clues.”

To aid with this, Henley is leading the implementation of a child sex trafficking screening tool currently in use at Cook Children’s. Her hope is that a few questions asked by clinical therapists may uncover victims hiding in plain sight.

She also points out that human trafficking is a form of child abuse and should be treated as such. Sadly, the CARE Team has seen many cases of parents trafficking their own children, usually for drugs.

“It’s really sad. The best thing we can do is get them into a stable environment and help them get the resources they need for counseling,” said Henley.

Taking Down Predators

The Human Trafficking Unit at the Tarrant County Sheriff’s Department is dedicated to taking as many predators off the streets as possible. With three investigators and a lieutenant, the unit carries out operations each month focused on helping victims and arresting human traffickers and their clients.

“When we find people who are being trafficked, we look at them as victims and set them up with an organization called Unbound Fort Worth that will help them get out of that situation,” said Detective Chris Jarvis, an investigator on the Human Trafficking Unit.

The unit also performs operations focused on the online solicitation of minors, in which they go undercover online posing as children. Detective Jarvis says they regularly catch adults who are trying to solicit sex from kids on the internet.

“Parents need to be involved with what their child is doing online,” he said. “Check their phones, make sure you’re reading their messages and know who they are talking to.”

He says some of the apps that predators use most often include:

  • Facebook
  • Kik
  • Instagram
  • Whisper
  • Grindr
  • Skout
  • Meet me

“These are some of the biggest sites that children get on. People can go on there and talk to your child. The more experienced ones can actually find locations, even without asking,” said Detective Jarvis.

This situation is not unusual to the CARE Team at Cook Children’s. Though not always through human trafficking, young patients are frequently seen after being sexually assaulted by an adult they met online.

“I recently saw a victim who met a man on Whisper. It happens, and parents need to be looking for these apps on their kids’ phones,” said Henley.

If lured into human trafficking, Detective Jarvis says it can be extremely difficult to escape. He says traffickers isolate victims from friends and family members, take them to places that are unfamiliar and watch everything they do. They also tattoo victims as a way to brand them. Common human trafficking tattoos include bar codes, lips, cartoon characters, initials and crowns.

Life expectancy for human trafficking victims is much lower than the average person. They’re often murdered or suffer the detriments of drug use and sexually transmitted diseases. That’s why it’s so important to get victims the help they need to overcome the manipulation, which often involves long-term counseling.

A Problem Everywhere

Christi Thornhill, APRN, director of the Trauma Program at Cook Children’s travels all over Texas speaking to medical professionals about human trafficking. She says there’s not a place she’s been that hasn’t seen this problem.

“Before I speak to a group, I always Google ‘human trafficking’ and the name of the town and it never fails,” said Thornhill. “I was in Mineola, Texas, with a population of 5,000 and found an article about a bust.”

She’s also seen victims from upper-class communities like Southlake and agrees that the hardest part about this crime is the manipulation piece.

“We’ve had people from all walks of life arrested for paying for sex with young victims. Police officers, judges, coaches, doctors, clergy members, teachers. Do you really think these kids are going to tell anyone?” she said.

Thornhill points out that believing claims of sexual abuse is one of the key things that people can do to prevent a child from falling into human trafficking. She says children who are sexually abused, but not believed by their adult caretaker, stand to suffer mentally, including loss of self-esteem and self-worth, making them easy prey for traffickers.

In addition to monitoring what children and teens are doing online, parents need to know who their kids are hanging out with.

“We’ve seen cases where kids are being recruited in schools, so it’s really important to be aware of what your child is doing and who they are friends with,” said Detective Jarvis.

It’s also important to note that not all trafficking victims are runaways or missing. The CARE Team at Cook Children’s has seen cases where kids are being trafficked while still living at home with their parents.

“I’ve seen kids who have been trafficked after school, but still make it home and sleep in their own bed at night,” said Henley. “When someone is profiting from someone else having sex with a child, that’s trafficking.”

Fighting Back

You can help deter human trafficking by keeping an eye on your neighborhood. Watch for suspicious activity such as multiple cars coming and going from homes, as well as different people at all times. If you see something strange, call the police.

Red flags to watch out for in kids include:

  • Missing school
  • Changes in demeanor and attitude
  • Odd tattoos
  • Seeming like they can’t make a decision or are being controlled

“It takes a community to keep an eye out and be aware of this,” said Detective Jarvis. “We can’t do it alone.”

As for Julia’s parents, they are continuing their push for human trafficking education and hoping to extend the requirement for all state license holders. They’re also hoping to enact stiffer penalties for those convicted of human trafficking.

“The thing that really got me is that we are in a small town,” said Mary. “But going through the process and learning what I’ve learned, it doesn’t matter where you live. These people are looking for anyone willing to talk to them, and they prey on the brokenhearted.”

National Human Trafficking Hotline

If you or someone you know needs help, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline toll-free hotline, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week at 1-888-373-7888 to speak with a specially trained Anti-Trafficking Hotline Advocate. Support is provided in more than 200 languages.

Callers can dial 711 to access the Hotline using TTY.

You can also email us at

To report a potential human trafficking situation, call the hotline at 1-888-373-7888, or submit a tip online here.

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