Lisa Knapp knew about selling luxury goods. She was an account executive for brands like Cartier and Tiffany. And she knew about working on charity events for local nonprofit organizations.
She did not know anything about the underworld of child sex trafficking.
Three years ago her eyes opened to what was going on in and around the state and in Austin, and her life changed.
"Children just like ours are being manipulated by strangers on the internet," she says. It's parents or relatives selling their children for money. Often it's kids who have some past with child protective services or foster care, she says.
"It's a lot more common than we think," Knapp says.
It's typically not kids from over the border or flown in from Asia, as many people might think. "I used to think that," says Andrea Sparks, director of the child sex trafficking team in the governor’s office. "Eight years ago, I was thinking of the movie 'Taken.'"
In reality, Sparks says, "the vast majority of victims presenting themselves are actually our kids. They are from Texas. They are in our neighborhoods. More and more they are lured online. Their parents think they are safe, but they are talking to a very manipulative person online who is grooming them."
The pimps are very organized, very skilled and very patient, says Angela Glode, the chief development officer for SAFE Austin. "They will groom these kids for two years if this is what it takes."
"The trafficking (cases) that we are seeing every day are our children," Glode says. "They are from every high school in our community." The average age a girl is lured or forced into sex trafficking is 15, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children estimates.
Knapp listened to experts like Sparks, and as she learned more, she says, "it kept me awake at night. What is happening to these kids? I can't believe someone can't do something."
And then she told herself, "Wait. Shut up and do something."
She started Austin 20, a group of mostly women older than 50 who tend to be influential in their professions. They all support other organizations by going to galas and writing checks. This is their way to be more hands-on, says Caren Burbach, a member.
The name comes from the 80-20 rule that says that 80 percent of your results come from 20 percent of your effort. In volunteerism, that often translates to 20 percent of the volunteers do 80 percent of the work.
For Knapp that 80-20 rule meant that she wanted to find the gaps in child sex trafficking prevention that her group could fill in to have the most impact.
She recruited people to join her. She's known some of the women in the group since their kids were in elementary school. Others have more recently come into her life. They all have the expertise to get stuff done and get it done quickly by reaching out to their network.
The first year, they raised $160,000 at a gala to help build out the Refuge for DSMT (Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking), a long-term therapeutic care home for people up to 19 years old who have been trafficked. The refuge, which opened in August, now has 15 kids there but will have 48 beds and be the largest such facility in the U.S.
"(Austin 20) helped kick-start everything," says Steven Phenix, director of public relations and communications at the Refuge.
The second year, Austin 20 raised more than $200,000 and helped furnish the Elizabeth Ann Seton House at SAFE Austin, which is a drop-in center that opened in April. It's intended to be an assessment center, says Angela Glode, the chief development officer for SAFE Austin. Staff will determine if the victim is in immediate danger and what resources need to be accessed.
"We wanted it to be a place where they like to be," Glode says.
Last week, Austin 20 raised $350,000 at a luncheon to begin building Nicole's Place, a short-term care facility that will be on land Knapp and her husband own and have donated to Austin 20. It will cost about $500,000 for Austin 20 to run it the first year.
"People are moved by the mission," Knapp says.
"We're learning 40 women can do a lot of work," Burbach says. "They can get a lot done."
The name Nicole's Place is the name of Knapp's children's birth mother, who died. "She could not escape her addictions," Knapp says.
Nicole's Place is the next big gap. Central Texas has long-term care at the Refuge and SAFE Austin, and a drop-in center also at SAFE Austin, but in between the drop-in center, where victims cannot spend the night, and a long-term care facility is where the gaps are.
"This is part of the continuum of care," Burbach says. "We're mothers. Providing continuum of care is right up our alley."
Sparks says that "right now people are struggling to find a long-term spot. It's really hard to find that place to get some trauma-informed care ... it takes a while to go back to the community."
You also can't send these kids home. "A lot of these youths were initially abused or trafficked by their own family," Sparks says. "It's dangerous to go back to these families."
It will help the kids served by SAFE Austin because even though they prioritize trafficking victims, SAFE Austin is often out of space. "There are days when it is really hard to find a space," Glode says. On those days, every bed is filled and they are using couches and conference rooms in the shelter, she says.
She reminds that both the women and families shelter and the children's shelter at SAFE Austin were built for a city with 1 million people, not the 2 million on the way to 4 million that Austin now has, Glode says.
Nicole's Place also helps law enforcement have a different place to bring victims rather than sending them to jail or juvenile detention centers just to get them off the street, Glode says.
Knapp uses the example of a girl she's been helping. She was in a juvenile detention center in Brownwood and released with a bus ticket and $15. Her plan was to go to Houston to be with another friend she met at the center who had been released before her, but that friend who didn't have any resources to take care of herself or any healthy family relationships went back to her pimp. Instead this girl contacted Knapp, whom she knew from the time Knapp spends talking to the girls in the center who have been trafficked. Knapp used her Austin 20 network of people to find this kid a place to live temporarily and a job while waiting for a spot at the Refuge to open up.
Once Nicole's Place opens, she'll have a designated place to go to start therapy through trauma-informed care until a spot opens up at a long-term facility like the Refuge or at one of SAFE Austin's shelters.
"We talk about second chances," Burbach says. "These kids need a first chance."
Phenix estimates that most victims need eight months to 18 months of care. He and the Refuge's website point to this University of Texas finding: Young victims who only received limited, short-term assistance and services were more likely to be revictimized at a rate of 34 percent, compared with 5 percent to 7 percent for those who had long-term care.
Nicole's Place will focus on victims up to 21 years old and at first girls, but as it builds more buildings, it will be able to have units for boys, too.
Austin 20 is starting with one house first. "We're trying to make one home perfect," Knapp says, before expanding.
Each unit will be a modular home that is designed to look like a comfortable home environment. Each resident will have their own space, which is important because often they haven't had anything of their own for years when they are coming into care.
"They didn't have the basics," Burbach says.
"To be told, 'This is yours,' it gives them a sense of identity they have not had," says Kyle McCollum of McCollum Studio Architects, who is working on the project.
The staff will have space, too. In between buildings are large walkways made out of pallets that float above the ground that also can serve as benches. There are quiet spaces throughout for conversation and reflection to begin the healing process. McCollum also made sure that none of the walkways dead end at a building. He wanted it to feel open.
McCollum likens the homes to stepping into your high school bedroom, the one these kids probably didn't get but wanted. "It's distinctly noninstitutional," he says.
The kids will come there by being referred by law enforcement, a hospital or another agency. They have to not have drugs in their system, and many will come from juvenile detention centers after having served time for drug charges or other small crimes that often come with having been sex trafficked.
The hope, though, is that many girls can go straight to Nicole's Place instead of a detention center or jail, where they often end up when there's nowhere else to take them.
Knapp hopes to open the first house at Nicole's Place in November.
The Austin 20 has spread. Now there's a Houston 20, a Fort Worth 20, a Woodlands/Conroe 20, a Midland 20 and, soon, a Waco 20. They all concentrate on where the gaps are in their communities when it comes to child sex trafficking.
"We need a Texas 20 and a Georgetown 20," Sparks says. "If we just had people in every community step up and say what they can do to prevent this."
"What they are doing, I'm so impressed," Sparks says. "There's a lot of people that want to help, but they put their money where their mouth is."
"She's a hard person to say no to," Phenix says. "It takes that type of person."
One of the things Knapp learned early on is to work with other groups and to work with the state and local law enforcement to have the most impact.
"When we first started, I was like, 'I'm Norma Rae. I'm down with the Man.' Wait, the Man is doing the right thing," Knapp says.
Austin organizations are doing great work, she says. "We have to work together."
"They have been willing to listen to us and trust our strategies," Sparks says. "It's not haphazard. It's very strategic."
And that has meant that Knapp also has been working with legislative staffs and the governor's office to strengthen legislation.
"This is messy, it's dirty, it's disgusting," Knapp says. "These men who buy this (expletive) should be in jail, and the pimps should be in jail."
The men are also your neighbors, the business executives, the CEOS, Glode says. "Technology means they don't need a red-light district anymore. They can order a kid online and the kid will be delivered to their door."
Phenix of the Refuge says it has to be a multiprong approach: education for potential victims as well as buyers and awareness to recognize what child sex trafficking looks like, legislation that includes stiffer penalties, and places to help victims like from Elizabeth Ann Seton House to Nicole's Place to the Refuge.
Sparks agrees. Her office is focusing on reducing the demand for child sex trafficking as well as preventing it by encouraging teens to develop healthy relationships with adults and having a strong sense of self and community. She calls it a "network of nurture" for Texas teens.
In five years, Knapp would like Austin 20 to have added houses to Nicole's Place, including a home for boys, many of whom have more trouble identifying themselves as having been trafficked than girls.
"This isn't my passion," Knapp says. "My passion is jewelry. This is my obsession. I'm obsessed with helping these kids."