Area sex trafficking mostly starts at home
Investigator details dangers of sending photos, running away
In recent months, the hashtag #SaveTheChildren has been a trending topic online, but child sex trafficking in southwest Missouri may not start where many think.
Brian Martin, an officer with the Southwest Missouri Cyber Crime Task Force, Missouri Internet Crimes Against Children, Homeland Security Investigations, Barry County Sheriff’s Office and Joplin Police Department, said in the majority of cases, trafficking starts online or when children choose to run away from home, and while the risk of kidnapping does exist, it is low comparatively.
“People have this perception of what sex trafficking is like, but someone can traffic a kid and really never leave home,” Martin said. “These people will manipulate kids and get photos, because for some unknown reason, some kids want to show off their genitalia. Kids meet people on the internet they think are their age, like a teenager, when really it’s a 40-year-old convicted sex offender.”
Martin said once images are sent to those types of criminals, the consequences can be extreme.
“The criminals will do what we call ‘sextortion’ for more photos,” he said. “They will demand more pictures and threaten to release the ones they have to family or friends if the child does not participate. The kid then gets stuck and doesn’t see a way out, and the criminals will sell or trade the pictures online. That’s a big way kids are being victimized.”
Much of the issue, Martin said, is children lack the maturity to understand the consequences of sending nude photos virtually.
“Kids are not able to understand that in 10 years, this will haunt them,” he said. “If you send a picture online, it’s nothing for the person receiving it to distribute it to 1,000 people.”
There is also no socioeconomic trends for this type of trafficking.
“It seems counterintuitive, but in the last three months, I’ve seen kids doing this who have parents that are teachers, doctors or local industry leaders,” Martin said. “It runs the gamut. And, if it’s a good kid, or someone whose parents are influential in the community, its doubly devastating because they have everything in the world to lose.”
This type of situation is becoming more common, Martin said, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, when school was out and youth are being more active on social media.
“I probably get four reports a week from internet service providers of kids posting pictures, some as young as five or six years old,” Martin said.
Sexual abuse situations tend to start in the home, as well, especially in southwest Missouri.
“A lot of kids are abused by family members, and their only hope is that they have regular contact with people at the schools,” Martin said. “That at least gives them the opportunity to tell someone. Instead, those kids are stuck at home with their abusers, with no one to tell and nowhere to go.”
Martin said another way children are trafficked is they may willingly engage in sexual activity with a person, become enamored, then be used as a commodity.
“A kid may hook up with someone and wind up somehow under their spell or control, and that person will then run ads for the child on prostitution websites,” he said. “Some of those sites have been shut down, but there are new ones that take their place, and every area has one that criminals prefer to use.”
Many times, children who run away from home fall into this category, especially if they travel.
“A regular scenario is a kid that thinks it’s gotten so bad at home, he or she has to run off,” Martin said. “They will get on a bus and get off in a city like Dallas, not knowing anyone or having anywhere to go. There are people who prey on those kids, watching the bus stops and grooming them by offering them money, food, attention or a place to stay. Then, the next thing you know, those kids are being advertised online. Kids winding up in other towns or states also makes it more difficult to find them.”
Martin said criminals who engage in this type of activity are also smart.
“Traffickers can see a kid from across a room, and 95 percent of the time, be right in picking which kids they can talk to and which ones they can’t,” he said. “As far as someone just snatching a kid, that is rare. It’s more likely they groom the victim online and get the kid stuck in a bad situation. They also do not waste their time on kids that know it won’t work on.”
Martin said a few years ago, his office found a child in Joplin that had been missing from Dallas, but there was never a report filed.
“This child got caught up in a prostitution sting and had ID saying she was 19,” Martin said. “The only reason we realized she wasn’t was we went through her phone and looked at her messages, then we realized she was only 14 years old because of the language she was using.
“A lot of kids, and adults even, are trafficked regionally. One night they may be in Memphis, then the next in Springfield or Joplin, then the next in Tulsa. Often times, they don’t even know where they are.”
Martin said when it comes to fighting sex trafficking, #SaveTheChildren has brought a new attention to the issue, and in some ways, helped.
“Federal marshals are making a big push in the last six months and have been able to move on some cases that have developed over a few months time,” he said. “We are also doing better at finding kids, as COVID-19 has made things more noticeable and people are seeing unusual things and reporting them.
“We have so many abandoned kids, and some of them are walking the streets at night. If you see an 8- or 9-year-old kid walking the street call the cops and let them know. These kids are at high risk of being trafficked, even if they are living at home.”
Martin said to make a difference in the sex trafficking world, parents and the community have to be more vigilant.
“Parents have to be parents and not their kids’ friends,” he said. “You may not know what your kid is doing online. Just because you have their Facebook password doesn’t mean they don’t have multiple accounts or are deleting information. Parents need to be checking all online activity regularly. Being ‘cool’ doesn’t mean a kid is showing you everything he or she is doing.”
Another key in the battle is reporting, which Martin said doesn’t always happen.
“A big thing is, if you want to do something about sex trafficking, is to to pay attention,” he said. “If you see something say something — call law enforcement and don’t just post on social media. Be available to kids when you see them at church or at McDonald’s and make sure they know they have people they can reach out to.
“If kids are getting what they need at home, they are less likely to look elsewhere for attention and become victimized.”
Martin said law enforcement in the bi-county area are aggressive when it comes to stopping sex trafficking, and people can help.
“If you see something suspicious, call,” he said. “And if they don’t respond, call back. Law enforcement in Barry and Lawrence counties do an awesome job at this, but they have to have help and can’t do it on their own.”