Fort Worth Weekly: The Bare Minimum

Texas lives off low-wage workers but does little to help them escape poverty.

Marion Patton makes $9 an hour working at Braum's in Fort Worth. She's waiting (and hoping) to get full-time work at the ice cream and burger joint. Photo by Jordan Ricaurte.

Marion Patton makes $9 an hour working at Braum’s in Fort Worth. She’s waiting (and hoping) to get full-time work at the ice cream and burger joint. Photo by Jordan Ricaurte.

Her eyes are aquamarine, piercing but kind. Like the color of the sea before it washes up onto the beach. Those eyes have seen homelessness, heartache, and the daily needs of three little people who call her Mommy.

She wishes her toes were squishing the cool white sand like they did so many times before she left Pensacola, Fla.

Michelle Schmelzle relocated to Texas with her children and boyfriend last March, not knowing a soul in the state. When her boyfriend left her shortly after the move, she knew she had to “do it alone.”

Schmelzle spent six months at Presbyterian Night Shelter near downtown with her kids before she was able to get a job waiting tables at Denny’s.

Today, we’re sitting at a booth inside the restaurant after her shift (8 a.m. to 3 p.m. five days a week). She got off early, and the restaurant is almost empty. I ask for a glass of tea and immediately feel guilty. She’s worked hard enough already.

Schmelzle, 32, makes about $950 a month. That’s with tips and the $2.13 hourly wage for tipped employees. The tipped employee wage, according to federal law, must equal at least $7.25 an hour when tips and $2.13 are combined.

But that income isn’t nearly enough to pay for her unsubsidized apartment or for licensed childcare for her 4-year-old son. Luckily, her other two children, ages 13 and 8, are already in school.

She couldn’t qualify for the county’s childcare assistance program, Child Care Management Services, until she got a job. But she couldn’t work until she had someone to watch her kids. And even with her Denny’s position, she will never make enough to be self-sufficient. It’s the kind of vicious cycle that keeps minimum-wage workers perpetually on the financial edge.

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Low-wage workers across the country — particularly women — face these problems every day. But in Texas, there’s no end in sight.

Fort Worth Weekly: Rising Up

Arletta Grant with granddaughter.

Arletta Grant with granddaughter.

After four months of research and getting to know the brave women featured in this story, “Rising Up” reveals that most prostitutes are victims of sex trafficking and nearly all prostitutes experienced sexual abuse as children. In the U.S., prostitutes are considered victims of sex trafficking until their eighteenth birthday. Then, they become criminals.


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 committedagainst 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.”

Read more here.

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