Noël Busch-Armendariz, Ph.D., LMSW, MPA, is a nationally recognized expert in sexual assault, human trafficking and domestic violence. She is a University Presidential Professor in the Steve Hicks School of Social Work. In 2019, Busch-Armendariz won the Hamilton Book Award, UT’s most prestigious literary prize, for “Human Trafficking: Applying Research, Theory, and Case Studies.” Her award marks two notable events: the first time that the award was given to an author of a textbook, and the first time, in at least 20 years, that it was presented to two winners.
After Noël Busch-Armendariz, director of UT’s Institute on Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault (IDVSA), was promoted to full professor, it was suggested that she write a book about domestic violence, but she dismissed the idea. Although she understood that writing a book is often the next step for many social scientists after achieving tenure, her focus remained firmly on her research. On top of that, she was still a licensed master social worker (LMSW), so a textbook wasn’t in the cards.
She recalls thinking to herself: “It doesn’t seem necessary. You could fill a library full of books about domestic violence. I would not be making a real contribution, because I don’t think we need another book on domestic violence. But I’ll keep teaching it since I love the subject.”
What she had, though, was direct experience working on Central Texas’ first known human trafficking case: three victims, all minors, smuggled across the border from Mexico. State officials called IDVSA to the table to help, but no one — not even Busch-Armendariz — had developed the necessary screening tools for these exploitation cases.
“I remember being stunned, and it’s pretty hard for me to be stunned,” she says, thinking back. “I consider myself among the veterans in the work on violent crime. The cases I take as an expert witness are among the most complicated. But I remember it feeling unbelievable, like a Hollywood movie — not something that happens in my backyard.”
After that, she says she had two more thoughts. The first was that she realized she was seeing a particularly dark side of human nature where people would exploit others — even children. The second was that she had to do something. “Those minutes of being stunned and overwhelmed by just how dark the human spirit could be were indulgent. One more moment of inaction was too long.”
A team of more than two dozen experts and specialists from Central Texas came together — national and local law enforcement, prosecutors, social workers, child advocates and refugee resettlement workers. They formed a cohesive task force and looked at existing laws and social services to see if they would be adequate to meet the needs of these survivors.
These three children, she says, were just the tip of the iceberg.
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