Memes don’t define missing kids

Nevada’s actual numbers are concerning, but not sensational

PHOTO ILLUSTRATION/TINNAKORN JORRUANG: Human trafficking is a worldwide problem and the child sex trade has gotten increased attention this summer as internet groups have taken up the cause.

Some anti-human-trafficking activists quote jaw-dropping statistics to define the scope of the problem and publicize details of horrific individual cases involving children, to evoke outrage and inspire public reaction.

The issue of sex trafficking and the exploitation of children is large, and growing, experts said, but also is complex. It can’t be captured in a social media meme or a boldface headline. Further complicating matters is the jigsaw puzzle of federal, state and local jurisdictions involved, the diverse methods used to assemble statistics, and the knowledge that sex crimes are underreported.

But law enforcement officials, advocates, researchers and activists have some solid numbers and estimates available, at least for Nevada. Veteran investigators have the experience to know who the perpetrators of child exploitation usually are and how they operate.

Here’s a look at what we know about the human trafficking of minors in the Silver State:

Who are the victims and the perpetrators?

In some movies, sex traffickers in windowless white vans roam the suburbs looking for minors to snatch off the streets in order to force them into a life of sex slavery. The facts are less dramatic, but just as heartbreaking.

“Many of the victims are runaways,” said Reno Police Sgt. Scott Smith, of the Washoe County Human Exploitation and Trafficking Team (HEAT).  “You’ll have people that come from broken homes, but not always. Traffickers are very manipulative, and runaways latch on to anyone who will give them attention.”

He said anyone who has been the victim of sex trafficking or knows of someone who is involved in it may call the Washoe County HEAT direct line at (775) 325-6470.

The people who want to exploit the runaways will buy them gifts or do things for them in order to gain their trust and establish their dependence, Smith said. “They will do anything to draw them in,” he said. “Next thing you know, they are demanding or forcing them to perform ‘dates’ for money.”

The goals: arrest traffickers, assist the victims

Such cases often are difficult to prosecute because the minors may not see themselves as victims. They enjoy the attention of the traffickers and even when it turns into abuse, Smith said, it is still attention. “Basically their childhood is being robbed,” he said. “Our job is to arrest the traffickers, get them the longest sentence that’s allowed by statute and get the juveniles out of the lifestyle and get them the help they need.”

A victims’ advocate works with the HEAT team, which also is staffed by Smith and three other Reno Police detectives. Plans are to add a detective from Sparks and one from the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office to the squad. The advocate provides basic assistance to victims who are often so dependent on the pimps that they have no possessions but the clothes they are wearing.

Under Nevada law, Smith said, traffickers who exploit juveniles under the age of 14 can receive life sentences; if the victim is between the ages of 14 and 16, the perpetrator can be eligible for parole in 10 years; and if the victim is between the ages of 16 and 18, parole may be applied for after five years. Those are guidelines; sentencing decisions rest with the judge in individual cases.

Stranger abductions of children are rare

The abduction of minors by strangers is rare in sex trafficking cases, Smith said. “It’s definitely not the norm,” he said. “It can certainly happen, and has happened, but that’s not what we’re seeing in our area. Here, it’s more of someone befriending a vulnerable juvenile who doesn’t have a stable home life. Then it turns into use of force to keep them in that (prostitution) lifestyle.”

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), also reports that traffickers usually target children with increased vulnerabilities. They often groom and study their victims prior to luring them away. Victims generally know their traffickers. One of the highest reported types of victims are children who are missing from care and/or frequent runaways. The center received reports of 23,500 endangered runaways last year nationally and estimates that one-sixth of those (about 3,900) may wind up as victims of sex trafficking.

PHOTO/FRANK X. MULLEN: A protester with Save Our Children Reno on Virginia Street.

HEAT was formed in January in order to allow the three local jurisdictions to better work together. Trafficking cases in Washoe County are routed to the team, which works with the Washoe County Internet Crimes Task Force, the Nevada Attorney General’s Office and the FBI.

“It’s been busy,” Smith said. “We’re making arrests. We see cases involving adults and juveniles and pandering cases. We also go after the johns (customers of prostitution).”

Senior Deputy Attorney General Alissa Engler, who serves as Nevada State Children’s Advocate, said human trafficking is significantly underreported, and true data is hard to determine. She said in her experience, in a majority of cases the victim knew the trafficker or was introduced to the trafficker by someone the victim trusted.

Engler and Smith noted that in some other cases, the victim met the trafficker online. That underscores the importance of parents knowing what their child is doing on internet sites and on smart phone apps such as Instagram. “The white van abductions are rare,” Engler noted. “It is much easier to gain the cooperation of a victim the trafficker can groom.”

Washoe sex trafficking by the numbers

Last year, Washoe County law enforcement agencies recovered nine underage victims of sex trafficking and nine adult (over age 18) victims. The agencies made eight arrests in cases where the trafficking of minors was involved and two arrests of alleged adult traffickers. They also made two arrests for pandering and two on lewdness charges. In all, local agencies investigated 60 alleged trafficking cases in 2019. There have been four convictions relating to those cases so far.

From January of this year, HEAT has investigated 33 cases, including 19 cases of sex trafficking. The unit has made seven arrests for trafficking of minors and seven for adult sex trafficking. Five juveniles (one 17-year-old, three 16-year-olds, one 14-year-old) have been recovered. Nine adult victims were recovered. The team made eight arrests for pandering and four for alleged solicitation or lewdness with a child. So far this year, six of the cases have resulted in convictions.

Problem more extensive in Clark County.

Since 2006 the Southern Nevada Human Trafficking Task Force, which operates out of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, has been working with federal, state and local jurisdictions to combat the region’s commercial sex trade.

From Jan. 1 to the end of June, Las Vegas Metro PD identified 59 minor sex trafficking victims, including 57 girls and two boys. Most of the victims (68%) were African-American and 18% were Hispanic. Twelve percent were white and 2% were Asian. Of 57 underage victims, 43 had been reported as runaways and 47 were local children. Four were 13 years old or younger and 53 were between the ages of 14 and 17.

So far this year, Metro investigated 57 cases involving adult victims of sex trafficking and identified 58 adult victims of sex trafficking. That includes 57 women and one man. Nearly half (48%) were between the ages of 18 and 24. Fifty-seven percent were African-American, 33% were white, 5% were Hispanic, 3% were Asian and 2% had no race listed.

State officers recovered 55 missing minors in 2019

Statewide, the Nevada Clearinghouse of Missing and Exploited Children is an agency under the Nevada Attorney General’s Office. The clearinghouse and the state children’s advocate assist local law enforcement agencies in prosecuting parental abduction cases and most of the state’s victim recoveries are limited to those cases. The attorney general also links to a resource guide about human trafficking.

In the case of child abductions not involving parents, reports are made to local law enforcement agencies and investigated by those jurisdictions, not the state. Last year, the Nevada Clearinghouse of Missing and Exploited Children recovered 55 children involved in non-parental cases. 

PHOTO/FRANK X. MULLEN: Protestors with Save Our Children Reno gather on Virginia Street.

The National Human Trafficking Hotline (1-888-373-7888), which connects victims and survivors of sex and labor trafficking with services and supports to get help, also receives tips about potential situations of sex and labor trafficking. Last year, the hotline received 239 calls that “referenced Nevada.” Of those, 40 involved minors. In 2018 the hotline received 68 Nevada calls referencing minors and reported 47 calls about minors in 2017.

OMG statistics about missing children common

Simple statistics can provoke outrage, but the data that are available is complex and often incomplete.

On Nevada-based Save Our Children social media pages, as well as others around the country, page administrators and users post hair-raising statistics. A sample: “300,000 children are forced into the sex trade annually” and the false claim that the number of missing children in the U.S. is greater than the number of COVID-19 deaths worldwide. That last figure is used to defend the often-seen slogan that “Child Sex Trafficking is the Real Pandemic.” Another statistic popular on anti-trafficking sites or protest signs seen on street corners is “800,000 children go missing each year.”

The 300,000 children figure is inaccurate and may be conflated with a similar statistic about kids “at risk” released by the U.S. Department of Health. That agency estimated that “between 244,000 and 325,000 American youth are considered at risk for sexual exploitation.” Risk factors are determined by red flags such as poverty, family substance abuse, loss of parents, physical abuse, a lack of support systems and other circumstances.

The “more missing kids than COVID deaths” comparison in a frequently-shared meme also is bogus. According to the FBI, fewer than 350 people under the age of 21 have been abducted by strangers in the United States per year since 2010. From 2010 through 2017, the number has ranged from a low of 303 in 2016 to a high of 384 in 2011.

In 2019 there were 421,394 National Crime Information Center (NCIC) entries for missing children. In 2018, the total number was 424,066. But those are the number of reports, not individual missing child cases. If a child runs away multiple times in a year, each instance would be entered into NCIC separately and counted in the yearly total. Children who are quickly found still count as a “missing” report. Changes to an entry count as a separate entry.

According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), every year, more than 200,000 children are abducted by family members. However, only 115 reported abductions represent cases in which strangers abduct and kill children, hold them for ransom, or take them with the intention to keep them.

Missing kids not ‘the real pandemic’

As bad as the existing national statistics are, they are nowhere near the inflated numbers often seen on memes. The “800,000 children go missing each year,” a statistic that translates into about 2,000 kids a day, often invokes the “oh my God!” response. It’s widely circulated for another reason – it is often the first link that comes up on a Google search for “number of missing children.” It’s used by NCMEC, which does qualify the number, and has been picked up by national media as an accurate total.

It’s not accurate. Again, what seems to be a simple, clear number requires explanation and qualification. The 800K figure is from a 2002 study (using data from 1999) that did report 797,500 people under 18 were reported missing in a one-year period. But 99.8 percent of the kids were recovered. That left a total of 2,500 (0.2 percent) children who did not return home or had not been located. Most were runaways from institutions.

Researchers who deal with trafficking statistics warned that numbers should not be instantly believed, particularly when they look sensational and evoke outrage. The problem of human trafficking – of both adults and children – is serious, they said, and should be of a concern to everyone. They advised people interested in data should always drill deeper and check sources, preferably peer-reviewed studies.

If no source is noted, especially if the figures come from social media, they said, the numbers probably are plucked from thin air.

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