Report from the Field: Preventing “close calls” in child abduction and exploitation cases

Image of man trying to lure young girl into his vehicleIn the past month, a significant amount of media attention has focused on the trial of Brian David Mitchell, the man at the center of the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping case. Based on the victim’s testimony, reports have emerged that multiple members of law enforcement interacted with the victim and her abductors during the period of Smart’s kidnapping.1 In retrospect, these “close calls” are a point of regret for both law enforcement and the victim, who, while describing one of these incidents during her testimony, said, “I felt like hope was walking out the door. I was mad at myself that I didn’t say anything.…I felt terrible. I felt terrible that the detective hadn’t pushed harder, that he had just walked away. I felt upset with myself that I hadn’t done anything, that I hadn’t taken a chance.”2

Approximately 2,000 children are reported missing each day in the United States. Given that so many children are reported missing, it would be reasonable to assume that it would be easy to find training that teaches the first-line officer indicators of an abducted child, exploited child, high-risk victim, or a person that may sexually exploit or abduct a child.

Yet, up until recently, no such training was available to help the first-line police officer recognize these warning signs, either during a traffic stop or public contact, such as the one that narrowly missed bringing Elizabeth Smart’s ordeal to an earlier close.

However, a new resource has just been developed to provide this critical information to law enforcement across the country. After three years and the combined efforts of Texas Department of Public Safety, the FBI—Behavioral Analysis Unit 3, and the Texas Attorney General’s Office, a new course on “Interdiction for the Protection of Children” is finally available.

Interdiction means to intervene, which is what trainers teach officers to do in an attempt to help and possibly save a child. The first-line officer—who is conducting daily traffic stops, working within the communities, and responding to calls for services—is responsible for the highest volume of public contacts and criminal arrests.

The course educates the first-line officer on how it is common for a child victim not to disclose abuse, even in situations in which there is an opportunity to do so. The impact of trauma and a perpetrator’s ability to manipulate a child victim are two key barriers to reporting. In her testimony, Smart testified that when confronted by a Salt Lake City detective, she did not say who she was for fear that “maybe something would have happened to me or happened to my family.”3 Students in the new interdiction course learn that they must stop expecting a child to yell for help—because so often they just don’t.

The training also focuses attention on runaways, a related but separate demographic of vulnerable children. In this course, officers learn facts such as:

  • Of the approximately 800,000 children reported missing to law enforcement each year in the United States, approximately 350,000 of them are runaways.
  • 60 percent of all prostitutes are runaways.
  • The average age of entry into pornography and prostitution in the U.S. is 12.
  • The life expectancy of the commercially exploited “prostitute” is 7 years.
  • Human Trafficking and exploitation is the fastest growing and second largest criminal enterprise in the world, generating an estimated $32,000,000,000 a year worldwide.

The results of this training program have been significant. In 2008, the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) Highway Patrol conducted 3 million traffic stops, through which they routinely recovered illegal drugs, stolen property, and criminals. However, during that year, DPS could not account for one successful recovery of a child through those stops, even though 56,000 children were reported missing in Texas that same year. Since implementation of this specialized training, DPS has recovered 10 missing children, including several familial abductions and a runaway who had been intended for commercial exploitation. Troopers have also identified suspects who pose a high risk threat to children, averaging two reports per month. One Trooper also arrested and charged a suspect for possession of child pornography, which was discovered on a flash drive during a routine traffic stop.

While drug and gun interdiction often results in media coverage of law enforcement officers standing in front of a stash of recovered contraband, the successful interdiction of a child is handled quite differently. Any celebration of the recovery of a child is bittersweet because, though recovered, they are still victims. Officers have responded positively to this course, as each man or woman in blue associates it with their obligation to fulfill their professional oath: to save, help, and protect victims.

-Sgt. Derek Prestridge
Texas Department of Public Safety

If you are interested in saving children and attending this class, please contact Derek Prestridge, Interdiction for the Protection of Children at Derek.prestridge@txdps.state.tx.us.


1. http://www.cnn.com/2010/CRIME/11/16/elizabeth.smart.near.miss/index.html

2. http://www.sltrib.com/sltrib/home/50639245-76/smart-viti-yes-cable.html.csp?page=33

3. Ibid.

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