DALLAS (CBSDFW.COM) – “It’s been 106 days since she’s been gone,” said Felita Verdell.
The Dallas grandmother marked her calendar the minute her granddaughter ran away in October. She called police to report her missing, but days and weeks turned into months without answers.
“She don’t have no money, no food, or anything like that. Where she is, like I said, ‘I don’t know.’ ”
Thus, Verdell turned to Melissa Woodward and Shanna Poteet. The women — both busy mothers with full-time jobs — run a non-profit called For the Sake of One. They said too many teenagers run away from home, only to be trapped by sex traffickers.
“I’ve been there. I started this organization because I’m a survivor of sex trafficking. I was sold on the streets of Dallas,” said Woodward.
And while you may think it can’t happen to your child, Woodward and Poteet said: think again.
“One of our cases was a man who was a friend of a friend of the mother, who shared a picture on Facebook.”
Woodward said the man saw a photo posted by a San Antonio woman. It showed her daughter in a cheerleading uniform, standing proudly next to her new car. Just enough information, she said, for a total stranger to approach the girl.
“He now has a complete description of her, what school she goes to… the license plate on the car. From that information he lured her from that school and she was gone for six and a half months, being sold to anywhere from 15 to 20 men a night.”
A nightmare that started with a picture someone could find in their feed almost any day. The crime that used to be on the streets, or on seedy websites, is now part of everyday life. Child advocates say main stream social media is connecting teens and traffickers.
“These guys say ‘oh, we love you’ and mom and dad are busy in corporate America… but this 19-year-old guy who has all this money and puts on a great show that he loves her, and buys her makeup and jewelry,” said Woodward, “that girl follows that guy and the minute she gets in that car, she’s going to hell and she ain’t coming back.”
The women said once the teens are gone, they slip through the cracks. The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children estimates that one in six runaways are likely victims of child sex trafficking.
“The cops don’t have the manpower or the mandate unfortunately, to go out and look for these kids.”
Kids who are being lured in by social media, are then sold the same way, according to Woodward. “They’re actually selling themselves or someone is selling them on Facebook, on Kik, on Snapchat.”
So how do parents protect themselves and their children?
Strict privacy settings are a good start, but Woodward said you need to really look at each picture before you post, to learn just how much information you’re giving away. Don’t show your vehicle’s license plates or mention your child’s school, and be careful who can see or share your posts.
Facebook provides a guide for private settings, reporting problems and removing inappropriate pictures. Click here to see it.
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