In the back room of a Miramar gun shop, a group of volunteers, some ex–Navy SEALs and former law enforcement officers, are converging on a singular mission: finding "Sara." The 15-year-old North County girl reportedly ran away after meeting someone online. She’s been missing for 45 days. Her family contacted the sheriff’s department, hired private investigators, and talked to the media in hopes of finding her, but came up empty-handed. Now Saved in America is taking on the case.
The nonprofit’s licensed private investigators have been chasing down leads since they were called in. Frank, SIA’s social networking investigator, shows the team some surveillance footage of Sara with a man in a Santa Monica thrift store. She’s noticeably thinner and has shorter, darker hair, but still has the same dimple in her chin and self-inflicted scars on her arms. Sara unknowingly tipped off the team to her whereabouts when she messaged a friend via Instagram. Frank says everything online is connected, "a daisy chain of information," and one account leads them to the next. The investigators also learn that Sara is using an alias and has posted an online ad for sexual services. Although they’re not sure where she’s been staying, their plan is to head to Santa Monica and check out where she’s been seen. SIA will track her down and, unless she’s in immediate danger, they’ll alert Santa Monica police to pick her up. They load up their equipment and head out.
Sara’s case is not unique. According to SIA Executive Director Joseph Travers, an ex-cop and author of Investigation of Missing and Exploited Children, similar scenarios are playing out in our own backyard. The FBI has identified San Diego as one of the country’s top 13 high-intensity child prostitution areas, and a 2016 study by the University of San Diego and Point Loma Nazarene University found that sex trafficking was the county’s second largest underground economy after drugs. It brings in about $810 million a year. Runaway and missing children are at high risk of being trafficked. Travers says about 60 percent of runaway girls will be approached by a trafficker in the first 48 hours. Already overextended law enforcement officers can’t always find teens who’ve voluntarily left home. Travers says SIA is filling a gap in the system. Their team members have assisted in 43 rescues in 33 months.
Their job doesn’t end there, SIA Director of Rehabilitation Leah Watson explains. Once Sara is found and safely in police custody, the team will pick her up, hopefully with her mother in tow, and take her to Rady Children’s Hospital. Since Sara has attempted suicide in the past, Watson says, she’ll most likely be held for a 72-hour evaluation and will detox from any substance she might be on. Hospital staff will also check for brandings, tattoos, or other telltale trafficking signs. That also buys Watson time to secure a rehab program where she’ll be taken upon her release. But it’ll have to be out of state, since Sara’s at such a high risk for running away again and it’s illegal to hold a child against their will in California. Sara will then have to process what happened and begin to put her life back together.
"These girls just need love," Watson says. "They need love more than anything and to be taught what real love is." SIA’s legal counsel also helps assist victims and their families.
Saving teens from sex trafficking is not cheap. Watson and her husband, SIA team member and former Navy SEAL Jimmy Watson, paid out of pocket for a safe house in an undisclosed North County location that they hope to have up and running this year. It’ll be called "Grace," for Girls Rising Above Child Exploitation. Travers estimates that although SIA is made up entirely of volunteers, it costs on the low end between $250,000 and $300,000 a year, which even then only allows them the resources to find one or two victims a month. "We have the capability to do a whole lot more, but it’s money," he says. There’s equipment to buy, travel costs to cover, and licensing fees to pay. SIA is also hoping to be able to afford a mobile command center soon. To learn more about what SIA does or to make a donation, visit savedinamerica.org. The Watsons are also accepting donations toward the Grace safe house at girlsrisingabove.org.