While there are many organizations seeking to combat human trafficking through advocacy, awareness and preventative training, the direct rescuing of victims is something that has been left to overstretched and under funded law enforcement task forces.
A group of ex-Navy Seal’s and police officers are attempting to change all of that.
Saved in America (SIA) is an organization that focuses on locating runaway children who may be at risk of being sexually exploited of trafficked by organized gangs. This is a huge issue, but the police are struggling to keep up with the ever-increasing caseload, as detailed on Saved In America’s website:
“Runaway and missing children are highly at-risk of being trafficked as the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimates that 20% of the runaways reported were sex trafficking victims.
Law enforcement is responsible for so much, they are constantly over-extended and are not legally required to perform due diligence to find a “runaway” child.”
SIA fills in the gap, gathering intelligence on missing young people and aiding law enforcement in their pursuit of those who are on the run and at risk.
“SIA gathers intelligence and evidence to locate and identify missing children and trafficked victims, violent pedophiles (pimps), and trafficking locations. The Law Enforcement Liaison reports all information to local and/or federal law enforcement officers,” the organization details on its website.
Once the volunteers at SIA locate the missing person, they relocate them to an “undisclosed rehabilitation program” so that they can receive medical care and therapy. SIA also has its own lawyers who will help victims and their families.
The stories associated with their work are heartbreaking, but there are glimmers of hope amidst the devastation.
Maureen and David Toal thought nothing of it when their 16-year-old daughter rode off to her friend’s house. But by that evening, the parents still hadn’t heard from her – they became increasingly concerned. Five hours later, after speaking with friends, neighbors and the police, David and Maureen were no closer to finding their child.
“We knew the police were treating her like a runaway and they just weren’t doing much,” Maureen, told PEOPLE. “We were trying to do all we could ourselves, but it was like looking for a needle in a haystack. You could go broke hiring people to help you and still not find anything.”
Three weeks went by, and nothing. The couple thought they had nowhere else to turn – then they came across SIA. The group’s co-founder is renowned private investigator Joseph Travers, a chaplain and talented detective.
“I knew that street gangs, prison gangs and cartels took over drug trafficking in the 1980s and then they took over sex trafficking at the turn of the century,” said Travers. “When I read about [the 2009 disappearance of] Brittanee Drexel, who disappeared off the face of the planet, I just knew gangs were involved.”
Drexel was kidnapped while on spring break at Myrtle Beach. Though her body was never found, the FBI recently revealed that a prisoner had come forward and detailed how Brittanee was brutally gang raped, beaten, shot and thrown in an alligator-infested pond.
The shocking case was the catalyst for Travers to set up SIA, and to start getting involved in situations like the disappearance of the Toals’ daughter. It transpired that the daughter and her friend accepted a ride from an older man who took them to Los Angeles. They were subsequently sold into sex slavery.
Less than a week after Travers’ team joined the case, she was rescued in Compton, California.
Travers has collected a pile of letters from law enforcement officials who have praised the team for its incredible rescue successes – 58 out of 58 rescued to date.
“It is partnerships such as this that play a significant role in law enforcement today, not only from a public safety standpoint but also as an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of those who have been victimized,” wrote Mike Williams, Sheriff, Duval County Florida in a 2016 letter to Travers.
“People don’t realize this is going on in their own backyards. This isn’t in some far away country with very poor people,” added Joshua Travers, Joseph’s son, a former U.S. Marine and SIA’s case manager.
“This could be your next-door neighbor, your child, anyone’s child. A lot of these kids are from a middle class family in the United States. They aren’t incredibly poor or involved in abuse or bad situations [at home].”
Sex trafficking is a global issue on an unprecedented scale. Globally, the International Labor Organization estimates that there are some 4.5 million people trapped in forced sexual exploitation globally. Since 2007, the National Human Trafficking Hotline, operated by anti-trafficking organization Polaris, has received reports of 22,191 sex trafficking cases inside the United States.
According to anti-slavery organization Hope for Justice, a victim of sexual exploitation is defined as: “A person who is trafficked for the purpose of sexual exploitation may be controlled by violence, threats, substance abuse, deception or grooming.”
Learn more about Saved in America by visiting their website here.