On February 5th, 2021, the Dallas District Attorney will participate in a hearing to certify that Zephaniah Treviño can be tried as an adult for the crimes her sex trafficker allegedly committed in Dallas, Texas.
Zephaniah Treviño is currently a 17-year-old child trafficking survivor accused of capital murder.
In 2008 the popular film Taken highlighted the existence of sex trafficking, an epidemic that exists in every American city.
However, what this film and other media do not capture is that sex trafficking is rarely kidnapping. Trafficking has evolved to commonly start with grooming.
According to Rebecca Zipkin, Policy Director at World Without Exploitation, "Sex traffickers target those who seem most vulnerable and then use psychological manipulation to create a false sense of trust and dependency. Soon after the grooming begins, they often use physical violence, drugs, threats, and manipulation to create physical and psychological control over their victims."
Zephi's case is no different, especially with her prior history of abuse and trauma. During the summer of 2019, then 16-year-old Zephi Treviño, began "dating" then 18-year-old P. Baldenegro.
"When a perpetrator suggests to their victim(s) that they are in a romantic relationship, it creates a sense of trust and loyalty that easily provides a false sense of security, particularly in the cases of vulnerable youth," explains Sophia, a child sex trafficking survivor and council member of the World Without Exploitation Youth Coalition. "Because of the trust and familiarity the connection establishes, it is easy for the exploiter to manipulate their victims to engage in [sex] acts." After Baldenegro began his process of grooming Zephi during their "relationship," his exploitation escalated by advertising Zephi for sex.
In August, two adult men convened with Zephi and Baldengro at an apartment under the pretense of purchasing Zephi from Baldenegro for sex.
When the two adult men arrived, Baldenegro allegedly began to beat and rob them with an accomplice. The commotion resulted in the fatal shooting of 24-year-old Carlos Morillo, one of the men who was there to purchase sex from Zephi. Despite Baldenegro confessing to pulling the trigger in the murder of Morillo, Zephi is being accused of committing capital murder alongside her traffickers. Zephi is a victim, not a criminal. As this case continues to develop, we must pose this much-needed question: Why do we treat child sex trafficking survivors as perpetrators instead of victims?
"We know that Baldenegro has admitted to being the shooter, and we do know that the two men, one of [not which] was murdered but the other that was assaulted by Baldenegro...were there to purchase sex from a minor child. These facts are incontrovertible." — Justin A. Moore (Zephi Treviño's Lawyer)
Zephi's prosecutors seek to try her as an adult, alleging that she is a co-conspirator even though an investigation into Zephi's trafficking victimization has not been undertaken.
Under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, Zephi was a domestically trafficked child. Under Texas's human trafficking offense—which includes all commercial sexual exploitation of minors—Zephi was a child sexual abuse victim.
Shea Rhodes, Director & Co-Founder of the CSE Institute at Villanova Law, is "hopeful that District Attorney Cruezot will continue to investigate this matter through a victim-centered and trauma-informed lens. It is critical that he uses his prosecutorial discretion in an appropriate fashion.
Legally, Zephi is a victim of child sex trafficking and should not be considered culpable or complicit in her own victimization. Child victims of rape should never be blamed for their perpetrators' actions."
According to Lauren Hersh, the National Director of World Without Exploitation, a national anti-trafficking organization, Zephi's case is not unique. "When I was a prosecutor in New York, many of the women that came to me were emotionally and physically manipulated by their 'boyfriends.' Many victims told me that they were consenting to the sex acts and that they were in 'the life' voluntarily, but as we dug deeper, emotional abuse and coercion were the reality, not consent. Prosecutors must understand the complexity of trauma and look beneath the surface."
The hearing on February 5th is being held to determine if the State will certify Zephi as an adult. We hope the Dallas District Attorney will not move forward with his hearing and instead drop all charges against Zephi. Zephi's case is an egregious example of a justice system that fails to recognize and prosecute traffickers while prosecuting the traffickers' victims. Laws and court systems often criminalize and prosecute survivors of commercial sexual exploitation, which creates further barriers to their future economic and social well-being.
A country and its legal systems that criminalize children who are trafficked does not uphold justice, nor the States Parties to the Palermo Protocol, which protects human trafficking victims. This Protocol implements the non-punishment principle to ensure "that children who are victims of trafficking are not subjected to criminal procedures or sanctions for offenses related to their situation as trafficked persons."
Today, right now, Zephi needs your help. She will never get back the 13 months she spent in jail, but we can rally together to ensure that she does not spend the rest of her life behind bars.
We urge you to stand with Zephi to support child sex trafficking survivors.
We demand that the system that revictimized Zephi protects her.
We implore that all charges against Zephi be dropped.
The fight to #FreeZephi is not just a cause for experts, but one we can all stand for together!
Here's how you can Take Action Now:
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