DALLAS – At the end of 2019, Texas had reported 54,214 missing people listed in the state’s database. Of those victims, 42,093 were under the age of 17.
Many were feared to be victims of abduction or trafficking.
While those numbers are staggering even for a state with a population of 29 million, there is some good news.
Texas Dept. of Public Safety last month reached a milestone when it announced that its officers had rescued their 500th missing child since 2009 when the state adopted a specialized training program that teaches patrol officers to identify the signs of missing, exploited, or at-risk children during routine traffic stops or encounters.
Called the Interdiction for the Protection of Children, or IPC, the program teaches patrol officers and other law enforcement agents how to spot indicators of child-sex trafficking and conduct during roadside investigations that can eventually lead to a rescue.
Among other indicators, the program teaches officers to look for telltale effects of fear and trauma in potential victims, such as averting their eyes to their abductor when being questioned by police to seek instructions. Officers are also trained to recognize indicators from potential abductors, such as adult drivers traveling with unrelated children whose stories don’t add up or they are carrying drugs that are just enough for personal consumption but not large enough quantities typically seen by dealers.
The program was developed in 2008 after the Texas Dept. of Public Safety saw a need for a comprehensive training program as the number of missing and exploited children continued to increase each year. The first training course was conducted in 2009.
The program is now the gold standard in training other law enforcement across the country as well as in several other countries. So far, the two-day training course has certified more than 10,000 people around the globe, according to the Dept. of Public Safety.
In the 10 years of training, the program has been taught to law enforcement, prosecutors, criminal intelligence analysts, child protective services, victim services, and child advocacy center professionals in 28 states. The training program also works across public safety and law enforcement departments, including sheriff’s departments, border control, game wardens, and national park police. The course curriculum has been taught in Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, and, more recently, in a presentation to Interpol in France, according to Major Derek Prestridge, who helped create the program and is one of IPC’s supervisors.
“Most people are under the impression that a victim of any sort is going to call out for help, including children,” said Major Prestridge.
But, in most cases, “that's not the way the situations tend to play out,” Prestridge said.
“The primary message that we hope all officers, any attendees or professionals who get the training, as well as the public, understand is that to stop waiting for children to ask for your help,” he said. “Stop waiting for children to tell you that they're victims of rape, abuse, and neglect.”
Instead, Prestridge said the program teaches trainees a comprehensive approach that “encountering a child is not enough.”
“It's accounting for a child each time that we have those encounters,” he said.
The program is unique in that it is the only training course in the U.S. specifically dedicated to equipping law enforcement and other participants with tools need to identify victims of abduction, abuse, and trafficking, he said.
“We do believe it is a game-changer,” Prestridge said.
The IPC program is not the first time Texas has been at the forefront of developing national programs to fight child abduction and abuse. The 1996 kidnapping and murder of Amber Hagerman of Arlington led to the creation of the Amber Alert system to inform the public about abducted children. That system was first used in the Dallas-Fort Worth area before then-Gov. Rick Perry signed an executive order in 2002 to make it statewide. It is now a national alert system and the model from which other national systems of alerts such as the Silver alert for elderly persons, the Blue alert seeking information about an injured police officer, and the Endangered Mission Person alert for those with an intellectual disability.
The milestone comes at a time when a proliferation of conspiracy theories about a Satanic cult of pedophiles run by political elites operating a child sex trafficking ring has been propagated by a cult-like online group calling itself QAnon. The Federal Bureau of Investigation has labeled the conspiracy theory group a domestic terrorism threat.
Those working in child protection and ending human trafficking have said the false claims associated with the conspiracy theory have complicated the messaging around the very serious and real issue of human trafficking and child abduction and endangerment. Polaris, a national group working to end human trafficking, has reported getting hundreds of calls to its National Human Trafficking Hotline referencing the conspiracy theories.
"While Polaris treats all calls to the Trafficking Hotline seriously, the extreme volume of these contacts has made it more difficult for the Trafficking Hotline to provide support and attention to others who are in need of help," the organization said in a statement posted to its website in July.