When Billy Cain found out his coworker and close friend of 10 years was contacting his children and talking to them in a sexually inappropriate way, he said he felt shocked and guilty. How could someone he trusted do this to his children without his knowledge?
"Long story short, nothing happened to him because he technically didn't cross a line legally, but through this experience, I realized we knew nothing about sex trafficking," Cain said. "My kids didn't. Their friends didn't. And not just about trafficking, everything that can lead up to it -- sex abuse, spousal abuse, physical abuse, psychological manipulation, Stockholm syndrome. All these things that surround trafficking."
The Facts reports at the time, the successful video game developer had started searching for a way to use virtual reality technology -- or VR -- to educate people. After his personal disaster, he made teaching people about sex trafficking his first project, he said. By 2016, he and Kevin Reinis, a technology expert, had co-founded the Radical Empathy Education Foundation.
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"When you're a kid, everything is normalized," Cain said. "So, if there's screaming or abuse in the house, you may not know that is bad. So we want people to recognize what is going on that is not healthy.
"And most people seem to think this happens to poor people in other countries, but this is everywhere. This is happening inside families. It's not like a panel van that drives up. This slowly creeps into your family. Someone needs to throw a red flag up because these kids need help."
According to the Texas attorney general's office, an estimated 25 million people are enslaved worldwide, and Texas has been a hub for all kinds of human trafficking for decades. An estimated 79,000 children are being sex trafficked in Texas at any given moment, the office states.
The scale of the problem is why Cain decided to take the Austin-based project on the road. His first stop was a return to his hometown, Lake Jackson, where the Civic Center recently hosted the debut of his sex trafficking simulation. At the free event, people put on a special pair of goggles to see a virtual reality and "walk" in the steps of a 13-year-old girl who fell victim to trafficking.
In "Trapped: VR Detective Story," players see where the girl is being held and interact with objects to find out how and why she became a victim. Through the experience, players will learn the average age for a child victim is between 11 and 15. They'll also learn who is most vulnerable to being trafficked -- anyone. Anywhere. From any background.
"It was kind of scary," 10-year-old Brianna Humburg said after trying a demo of the simulation. "I think it helps learn how it actually feels and how to learn more about it and how it would actually be if it were to happen."
Brianna's mom, Missy Humburg, said she brought her two children to the event because they recently moved to Texas from Minnesota and she heard sex trafficking is an issue in the South. California, Texas and Florida are the three worst states for trafficking, according to the Hotline for Human Trafficking, and more than half of trafficking victims are U.S. citizens.
"I think the VR experience for this is great," Humburg said. "It puts them into the situation. I think they got something out of it."
Going forward, Cain is teaming with Donna Wenzenreid, another Brazosport High School graduate and founder of Y.I.E.L.D.ing Arts, a nonprofit that uses martial arts to teach kids how to gain self-confidence and exercise self-control. Together, the two groups hope to start implementing the project in schools.
"For now, we're focusing on business people and testing to see what they want," Wenzenreid said. "It's something people have to personally experience. People bring their kids -- daughters, even sons. Once they experience this, there's no going back. I have no doubt that a parent can make that connection between their child and the child in the game."
Ultimately, their goal is to make the game free for schools, law enforcement, nurses and any other groups that might benefit from the simulation. Wenzenreid also said she hopes to spend more time in the Lake Jackson area working with law enforcement to help them better recognize victims.