Discussion moderated by Theba Lolley; shot by Kelly Tibbit, Jonathan Nettles, and Jacob Amis; edited by Jessica Johnson Amis None
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (KTHV) – In 2004, the National Institute of Justice deemed missing persons “the nation’s silent mass disaster.” That was around 10 years prior to when sex trafficking really began to come into the missing persons conversation, according to Colleen Nick, who leads the Morgan Nick Foundation.
As part of THV11 and TEGNA’s “Selling Girls” series, THV11 held a panel discussion with four advocates for missing children:
- Colleen Nick, mother of Morgan Nick who was reported missing in 1995 at 6-years-old at an Alma ballpark, and founder of the Morgan Nick Foundation
- Genevie Strickland, director of education at the Morgan Nick Foundation
- Mike Nance, regional system administrator at NamUS
- Bill Gossage, deputy chief of staff for external operations for Gov. Asa Hutchinson
The four are part of the “Arkansas Missing and Unidentified Persons Initiative” which works to provide support and resources for families of missing persons. It’s a state initiative.
The state of Arkansas is filled with major interstates, allowing “quick access” for traffickers.
Nick said, “We have the north-south-east-west interstates that literally cross here in our state. Trafficking doesn’t happen somewhere else in other states, or in other countries. We’re literally seeing it here in our state where kids are being trafficked across our state and being trafficked out of our state.”
The four on our panel agreed: Those preying on children aren’t necessarily what you would expect them to be.
Nance described them as being well-versed on how to use the Internet as a tool to manipulate children. He said, “They go searching these kids out who are just completely unaware of these dangers.”
According to Strickland, children, on average, are online 11 hours a day. She said that those preying on children use that to their advantage.
“The mindset of a teenager is completely different,” Strickland said. “They’re not thinking, ‘I’ve got to worry about a sexual predator or something like that being online.”
They’re also said to be targeting children by simply being where they are.
In an eye-opening statement, Strickland added, “You’ve got to get rid of that typical mindset that this is an old man sitting in front of a computer at home, pretending to be a 13-year-old girl. That is just not the way it is anymore. They average age of a predator is 22-years-old. It’s getting younger. A lot of the cases we’ve seen lately where we’ve got sex trafficking going on, the people in charge of the sex trafficking are 14 years old, 15 years old, 18 years old. So now they’re going into schools, they’re going into youth groups, they’re going into these situations where they’re putting a kid who is your kid’s age, maybe a little bit older, because that makes them feel trustworthy to a teenager or even to a parent.”
THE WARNING SIGNS: IS MY CHILD INVOLVED IN SEX TRAFFICKING?
Strickland encourages parents to make note of any changes in behavior or attitude.
- Unexplainable whereabouts
She asked, “Can they not explain where they’ve been, what they are doing, who they are with?”
- Multiple cell phones
Strickland said that it’s common for those involved in sex trafficking to be given a phone. She said, “Do they have the one that the parents bought them, and then they’ve got another one. You don’t know where it came from. Maybe they said they purchased it themselves. Why do they have multiple cell phones?”
Tattoos are also said to be common, and often, they’re unexplainable to parents or teachers.
- Poor school attendance/Away on holidays
Strickland encourages teachers to be on the lookout for these changes, too. She said, “Are they missing a lot of Fridays and Mondays because that gives them a four-day weekend? Holidays are a big time that they’re being trafficked because they’re out of school. They miss less school, a little less noticeable.”
The panel came to the conclusion that a great way to ensure your child stay safe is to be active and present in their lives.
Nick said, “Everyone thinks that it’s just girls who get pulled into sex trafficking. It is boys and girls. It’s the LGBTQ community. Every kid is at risk, depending on who is targeting them. So please don’t think that just because you only have boys that they’re going to be fine. You have to talk to them, educate them, continue to have the conversations. Don’t be afraid to check their cell phones. Don’t be afraid to get into their social media. As parents, we are afraid of invading their privacy.”
Gossage added that giving children a phone can be risky, too. He said, “But really, what they need to be thinking of is, ‘I’m giving access to my child, possibly for every sexual predator that is within this area, or not even in this area, could be across state lines. And not only that, if they do things in a certain way, they’ll actually know where that child is because of location devices on that phone. So literally, it’s a roadmap to that child.”
And while many kids don’t have access to phones or Internet on a personal level, Strickland reminds us that they’re still around online devices in many ways.
She said, “They have Internet at every McDonalds, Starbucks, every store out there, it’s free WIFI. They’re on phones and computers at school. That’s part of their school now. You can’t just think, ‘Oh well, they don’t have that, therefore they’re safe.”
Nick encourages parents to stay in-the-know. She added, “Get up in the middle of their privacy and know what they’re doing. Know who they’re talking to. Establish that no one takes cell phones to their rooms at night. These are hard and unpopular parenting decisions but you will be able to keep your kids safe. It will open up conversations. Know what they’re doing.”
She ended with a statistic:
“The fact is 2,000 children are reported missing every single day in the United States. It happens every day. Talk to your child. Check their social media. Know who their friends are. Be right up in the middle of their life so that they’re not one of those 2,000 kids.”
For more resources about keeping children safe, visit Morgan Nick Foundation.