Missing child mystery: Uncovering the truth behind headlines & social media posts

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OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – News 4 is focusing on an issue that has suddenly become the subject of a social media firestorm – child sex trafficking

Human trafficking is a topic we have been covering for years on News 4, and we are not the only ones

Their faces, ages, and circumstances are just as diverse as the problems that plague them. These are the faces of America’s missing and exploited children. Missing child posters across the country ask “Have you seen me?” Turns out, many of us probably have.

“When I first got into this work about 10 years ago, I believed some of the different theories, and different conspiracies that were out there. Perhaps that it only happens in third world countries or that it happens in this random abduction scenario, but what we see is much more hidden in plain sight,” Dragonfly Human Trafficking Services Director Whitney Anderson said.

So when headlines break that read “39 Missing Children Found in Georgia Trailer Park,” there are is outrage. And there are questions that explode across social media. Those 39 children? Fifteen were victims of sex trafficking. The U.S. Marshal Service says the other 24 were either taken by a non-custodial parent, walked away from foster care, or escaped from the Department of Juvenile Justice. And one of those children was found right here in Oklahoma. She had been taken by her mother.

“The Southeast Regional Task Force located in Atlanta Georgia conducted an operation focused solely on finding missing children,” Johnny L. Kuhlman of the U.S. Marshals Service Western District of Oklahoma said. “One of their cases, they had a lead that one of these missing children was located in Oklahoma City. So that lead was forwarded to the Oklahoma City office.The fugitive task force in Oklahoma did find that missing girl, but now she is a legal adult.

“The twist to that is that individual has since turned 18 years old,” Kuhlman said. “So since she was no longer a juvenile, contact was made to check her welfare to make sure everything was fine, and then all that information was reported back to Atlanta, Georgia Marshal Service so they could then clear that case.”

That case was part of “Operation Not Forgotten.” You are probably wondering if there is a U.S. Marshal effort like this in Oklahoma. However, the reality is very different than a current social media frenzy that suggests there are thousands of children being abducted from street corners every hour of every day. In Oklahoma, the U.S. Marshal’s Service is currently working on less than 10 cases, and in most of those cases the child was taken by a family member.

“Even though there are stranger abductions, there are very few. Most of these missing and endangered children are issues where a parent may have custodial rights taken away from them,” Kuhlman said.

That is what happened in the two most recent cases they have worked.

“A woman left with her baby. She happened to be wanted on a probation violation, but the baby had a feeding tube and needed to be fed, and that woman had a history of child abuse,” he said.

Another case. Similar scenario.

“A mother forced her way into a daycare and took her two children that she did not have custody of,” Kuhlman said.

But what about those children who are trafficked? Just how prevalent is it?

“That’s a great question, and it’s hard to answer that, but I’ll answer it this way,” Kuhlman said. “Occasionally, we’ll run across what is truly a victim of child trafficking, but once again we don’t have many instances of those at least here in Oklahoma City even though I am convinced as most law enforcement is that it is a tremendous problem. It’s just one of those problems that is very, very difficult to track down and find those children under those circumstances.”

Especially when the child is never reported missing.

Whitney Anderson is the director of Dragonfly Crisis Center serving victims of trafficking including children who were born, raised, and sold in Oklahoma.
“Sold for sex, exploited for commercial sex. Perhaps their trafficker is arranging dates with sex purchasers, and they’re having to provide sexual services multiple times per day,” Anderson said. “We commonly see where preteens and teens actually meet their traffickers at school or on social media or on dating sites. What they don’t know is that this person online wants to groom them, build a relationship with them, and then later sell them for sex.”

And many times, according to experts, it is the child’s own parent.

“We also see scenarios where family members are selling their children to pay for rent or support a drug addiction,” Anderson said.

So how can you help? Experts say there is one thing that is not helping.
“It can be harmful to blindly share posts that you see on social media, because so often they are inaccurate. They do not portray what trafficking looks like here,” Anderson said. “If we are looking at theories that we see online, we are absolutely going to miss the cases that are happening right here in our state every single day.”

Dr. John Wood is a Political Science professor at the University of Central Oklahoma and says theories often surface during election cycles.

“We’ve always had conspiracy theories. They’re a lot easier to understand than reality, because you can connect the dots easier. It’s this, this, and this when the reality is so much more complicated than that,” Wood said. “If sex trafficking were this easy, we would have had it fixed years ago.”

So back to that attention grabbing headline and the outpouring of questions that flooded the internet.

“We who as front line advocates who have been really dedicated to this movement and this cause for so many years,” Anderson said. “We have not seen any cover up on the part of media of not covering sex trafficking. If anything over the years we have been encouraged to see more and more coverage of this horrific crime.”

These are out nation’s missing and exploited children, and now you know some of their stories.

“Obviously these children who are out there somebody has to stand up and speak for them and act on their behalf, because they can’t do it themselves, and that’s where law enforcement steps in,” Kuhlman said.

The U.S. Marshal Service can only help search for a missing child if they are asked to do so by the primary law enforcement agency working the case.

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