OCEANSIDE — Their mission is simple, to rescue kids from becoming or who are victims of sex trafficking.
A group of 24 men and women at Saved in America, all volunteers, are making an impact in San Diego County by locating and rescuing runaway kids. The Oceanside-based nonprofit provides free services for families whose children have run away.
Recently, the group assisted in locating North County teenager Seraphine Bustillos, who ran away from her Elfin Forest home in July and was found last month in Venice, California.
The idea came to founder Joseph Travers, a former police officer who worked in narcotics, in 2010 after reading about a case on the East Coast where Brittanee Drexel was kidnapped, raped, killed and her body dumped into an alligator pit.
In 2014, Travers had raised enough money and volunteers to formally begin operations. He has recruited former Navy SEALS, British SAS, police detectives and an active lawyer to assist with the organization.
“We decided to structure an organization to assist police and parents,” Travers said. “With further study, we found out that 40 percent of child runaways end up in child sex trafficking. In the first 48 hours of runaways, 60 percent are approached by a sex trafficker.”
Saved in America has made 49 recoveries in 34 months and also reached a settlement in its first civil case, he added. All the cases are free to the victims’ families or parent as SIA is funded through donations.
Travers said each volunteer who is an operator has a private investigator license and developed protocols to work with law enforcement.
Families reach out to SIA through its website and then investigators start combing through the runaway’s contacts, especially on social media. The families or parent must also file a police report so law enforcement can legally rescue a child.
In addition, the family or parent must sign a power of attorney to allow SIA to contact their child. Once a child is located by SIA, they contact police to recover the victim.
“When the police get there, they are able to take the child no matter what the child says,” Travers said. “In 60 percent of our cases, we reach the child before the predator does.”
As for their techniques, Travers said diligent records are kept to assist law enforcement with arrests and prosecution, as well as filing civil lawsuits against the predators, with all costs and any settlements going to the victims.
“The skill set unique to the special operators … I can send the Navy SEALs in to hold a perimeter until we see the people we need, mainly the child, until the police get there,” he explained. “They are trained to blend in so you don’t even know they are there.”
Currently SIA is working two cases, one where they believe the girl is in Tijuana and another 15-year-old in Visalia. They have worked cases as far away as Florida and are currently attempting to expand their operations to the East Coast, Travers said.
The plan is to bring in a team of 18 operators in North Carolina and Virginia.
“We’ve also developed a national association,” Travers said. “It’s the National Association of Missing and Exploited Children (NAMEC). That consists of the private investigator associations across the country volunteering to help find missing children for free.”
Their work has found an audience and on Thursday, they held a fundraiser at Liberty Station in San Diego where Mayor Kevin Faulconer was the keynote speaker.
For more about SIA or to donate, visit their website at www.savedinamerica.org or helprescuechildren.org.
Steve Puterski covers Carlsbad and Vista. For tips or story ideas, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @StevePuterski.