“In 2015, 745 missing children’s cases were reported from Bell County.”
By Danielle Wellborn-Taylor
“In 2015, the specific number of missing children’s cases nationwide was 460,699, of those numbers 46,046 were reported from Texas, and 745 were reported from Bell County,” said Meghan Zuraw, Texas Regional Office Outreach Manager.
Zuraw was one of the guest speakers at Monday’s child exploitation and child sex trafficking workshop in Belton held by the National Center For Missing & Exploited Children.
Zuraw covered prevention techniques, trafficking indicators, and sources of trafficking recruitment.
“The overwhelming thing that ties trafficking victims together is that they all have some sort of void in their life, and the trafficker has stepped in to fill that void,” says Zuraw.
Kids can be prone to posting these voids on social media sites, and can easily be exploited by traffickers. “And that’s why even when we talk to youth that aren’t in foster care, or don’t have high-risk factors for trafficking we are still asking them what kind of vibes are they sending out online to people that are watching what their doing,” Zuraw continued.
She says parents and foster parents can be proactive in the lives of their children.
Zuraw warned, “The most dangerous environment you put your children into is the one they are holding in their hand, their cell phones, they are more likely to talk to and meet up with somebody on their phone than be snatched from a playground.” She suggests watching carefully what your kids are doing online, on their smartphones, and on social media.
A big concern that was echoed throughout the workshop and its attendees was the lack of resources available to the agencies that assist in protecting, and recovering children in Texas.
“We just don’t have enough resources out there as far as placement and treatment facilities for this population, they’re developing, but they are not yet there,” says Kathy Weishuhn from Department of Family and Protective Services.
Although new state laws have been put in place to assist with at-risk youth, the availability of resources has limited the ability to fully exercise the laws intentions.
“We’re in a placement crisis here in Texas, and we’re overloaded with the number of cases we have versus the number of investigators we have, but the commissioner is working on establishing a statewide task force.”
In the audience was Todd Latiolais, who works in the Office of The Governor on the Child Sex Trafficking Team.
“The governor’s office created this team, and I’m here to get ideas about prevention, and policies that can possibly be improved,” said Latiolais. “This team and the governor’s office’s goals are to be able to work with different agencies to develop procedures to improve how we identify and provide services to kids.”
Speaking with the panel of law enforcement and service providers was Kim Hamilton, a detective with the Belton Police Department, and Dawn Owens, an Assistant Director with Bell County Juvenile Services.
They both expressed how important community involvement is when it comes to addressing the issue of child trafficking and exploitation.
“We know it’s happening in our area, our problem primarily is that they don’t trust us, and they have a hard time talking to us. We need the community to be our eyes and ears,” said Hamilton.
One audience member asked what exactly the panel would want if they had an army of citizen advocates.
“We need advocates that are well-trained community members that can help us develop a continuum that works alongside law enforcement, a single-point contact, and advocate. We also need professional counseling, and we need survivor mentorship and leadership,” said Owens.