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Billboard campaign aims to highlight growing human trafficking issue in Tarrant County

Special Agent Matt Wright, with the Department of Homeland Security, said 178 people were arrested during the last fiscal year for trafficking suspicions.

TARRANT COUNTY, Texas — From a commemoration from the United States Department of Justice to a virtual prayer hosted by the Office of Governor Greg Abbott, events to highlight the dangers of human trafficking were held Tuesday in honor of National Human Trafficking Awareness Day. 

"When people think of human trafficking, they think of something from the movie Taken," Fort Worth Police Chief Neil Noakes said at an event held at one of the department's stations Tuesday. "They think of someone who's violently kidnapped, who's restrained in a basement somewhere. Oftentimes, they're not chains around the ankles or wrists. They're chains of the mind and heart. 

The event featured speakers from the police department, Tarrant County Sheriff Bill Waybourn, agents with the Department of Homeland Security, who investigate trafficking cases in DFW, a representative from the DA's office and members of non-profits in North Texas who work to provide education on trafficking and resources to survivors. 

“It is starting online, for children that are incredibly young," Fort Worth Mayor Mattie Parker said. "They’re impacted in ways that their parents think they’re safe, and they simply are not.”

Special Agent Matt Wright, with the Department of Homeland Security, said 178 people were arrested during the last fiscal year for trafficking suspicions. Wright said 20 were hit with federal charges, and 28 victims were provided resources for healing and recovery through the help of non-profits and groups like Tarrant County's human trafficking task force. Those numbers are local and only represent a small portion of the problem. 

RELATED: No, most sex trafficking victims are not kidnapped by strangers 

“Its challenging to quantify actual revenues from this crime," Wright said. "With estimates, we predict it's about $150 billion a year. Revenues surpass that of money of the world's fortune 500 companies.”

In an effort to further education and help parents be proactive in monitoring their kids' social media interactions, law enforcement, city and county officials and various North Texas human trafficking groups are working with Clear Channel Outdoor to launch a six-billboard campaign for the month of January to highlight the issue. 

Clear Channel donated the billboards, located throughout Tarrant County, with projections to garner four million impressions.

On Tuesday, leaders thanked Clear Channel for their donation and applauded the collaborative effort at the federal, state, local and non-profit levels that have prioritized human trafficking. 

The hope is the campaign will bring civilians into the fight as well. 

Sherriff Waybourn said Texas is usually at the top of the list of states for trafficking case numbers, but he said that's encouraging. He said that speaks to the work being done to investigate, expose and prosecute the cases so there are eve numbers to report. 

“That’s the reason Texas gets second in the country," Waybourn said. "It’s because we don’t run. We’re right here, and we’re coming after you.”