September 27, 2023

Human Trafficking Task Forces Today

By Professor Barry Goodson

During the 1990s and early 2000s, I served as the head of my county’s Crimes Against Children Task Force (CAC), the first CAC Task Force of its kind there. I was fortunate to receive assignment as the head of investigations for this task force, which enabled me to see the effectiveness of a team of professionals whose focus remains on the safety, security and mental well-being of all of the victims and families involved in the investigation and subsequent court procedures.

On a cold night in February in the early 1990s, I was on patrol around 2:00 a.m. and had a feeling that I needed to patrol a small lake park that was just out of my jurisdiction. The lake patrol did not work during late hours and the city officers rarely patrolled the area because of limited calls concerning issues at that lake.  I turned into the parking lot and saw a young girl curled up in the fetal position under a clump of bushes, holding a large butcher knife in her hand.  There was a reflection from her nightgown, which was all she had to offer protection against the cold, night air.  I assured her that I was a law enforcement officer and that I was there to help her.  I asked her to hand the knife to me.  She was so overcome with the early stages of hypothermia that the knife simply dropped from her hand.  I helped her out of the bushes and carried her immediately to the patrol car.  I wrapped her in a blanket I kept in the trunk of the car and turned the heater up as high as it would go.  I notified dispatch that I had an unidentified female about 10 years old who was suffering from hypothermia and to advise the hospital and Child Protective Services (CPS) that I was in route. I later questioned the young girl concerning why she was at the park, but she refused to talk to me or with the CPS officer.  We did manage to find out where she lived with her father, who could not be located until the next morning.  He assured us all that there was no reason for his daughter to want to run away from home.  I dropped by the house several times during the next few weeks and found the girl walking down the road during evening hours and tried, once again, to get her to tell me who was harming her.  I assured the girl that walking the streets and highways late at night would only serve to make her a target for those looking for easy prey; however, something told me that the present fear was stronger than any fear from a possible child abductor. A few weeks later, the house was abandoned.

Ten years later, a young woman walked into my office with a baby in her arms and a toddler clinging to her skirt. She asked if I had a moment to talk.  I set aside my work and assured her that I would help if I could.  She sat down and told me the story of the young girl I met that cold night 10 years before.  She was that girl.  She had been abducted as I feared and was in forced prostitution.  She still would not give me any information concerning her abductors, nor would she reveal any information that would empower me to help her flee from her captors.  I assured her I could put her and her children in a safe home, but she refused.  She told me that the only reason she came was to let me know that what I warned her about did come true and that I should never give up on saving children.  She left my office with tears in her eyes, once again refusing help.

This is a prime example of how a patrol officer may encounter a victim of human trafficking, as well as crimes against children. Many officers work juvenile runaway cases as if they are only rebellious teenagers; however, if those juveniles are not located and given the proper help they need, a strong possibility exists that they will become victims of human trafficking, either locally or internationally.  The probability of recovering such victims remains very low because the offenders have a tendency to keep the victims away from public encounters with exception to prostitution customers.

To ensure the success of any task force, leadership must recognize the immediate and projected needs of each case and recruit specialists to the cause based on those needs. The victims’ rights and proper, required training must remain central to each investigation to ensure the public, major non-governmental organizations and government personnel are adequately trained in the recognition of potential human trafficking victims, as well as the typical target areas one may expect from human trafficking operations. Law enforcement, regardless of the size of the agency, lacks the all-inclusive expertise one should expect from a well-organized task force. They should rely heavily on federal funding and human trafficking investigative specialists to provide assistance during investigations and the creation of a task force to ensure the proper resources and expertise in order to successful close all cases and, most of all, give freedom back to those who are oppressed and harmed by this heinous crime.