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Congress introduces bills to train police to identify child sex traffickers

The program created by a Texas state trooper has shown success in rescuing victims.

Capt. Derek Prestridge, center, of the Texas Department of Public Safety, speaks with fellow troopers during an Interdiction for the Protection of Children training session in Austin last year. New bills in Congress aim to take the interdiction program nationwide. (Tamir Kalifa for The Washington Post)

Though the scourge of child sex trafficking may seem like an intractable problem, a program designed by a state trooper in Texas has shown real results: hundreds of children rescued, and hundreds of pimps and kidnappers arrested, by patrol officers on mostly routine traffic stops, both in Texas and other states where it has been taught.

Now Congress wants to spread that program nationwide. A bipartisan group of senators and Congress members introduced a bill Tuesday to fund the Interdiction for the Protection of Children program as a pilot project, training federal, state, local and tribal officers in how to spot possible trafficking victims and collecting data that will measure the program’s effectiveness.

Patrol officers are trained to spot drunken driving and drug trafficking. Why not child trafficking, too?

The program was created in 2009 by an officer in the Texas Department of Public Safety, Derek Prestridge, who realized there was no real training for officers to identify missing, exploited or at-risk children when they’re encountered on the street. Prestridge also realized that, while police agencies keep track of drunken-driving stops and drug seizures, no one was tracking the number of child rescues made by police, he told The Washington Post last yaer.

Prestridge and others in the Texas DPS then built a training course that taught troopers behavioral and physical indicators that a child, or adult, might be involved in trafficking. Does the child look to others before answering questions? Do they know where they’re going or where they’ve been? Do they have large amounts of cash or prepaid phone cards, hotel keys, sex paraphernalia or slips of paper with phone numbers and dollar amounts? All are potential signs that a child is being exploited.

Prestridge began the training in 2009, and Texas soon began logging child rescue; there were more than 140 in the first five years. Word of the program spread through law enforcement, and Prestridge began training officers in other states. Arizona has begun racking up dozens of child rescues annually, officials there said. As the training slowly spread, officers related stories of how they had stopped cars or encountered traffickers previously, but missed the signs and released the captor and their captive. The U.S. Marshals Service took an interest, forming a Missing Child Unit in 2015, and helped push Prestridge’s training.

But funding for the training beyond that done by Prestridge was lacking. Then last year, an article in The Washington Post Magazine detailed the success of the program and the need for more funding and training. That caught the eye of legislators, particularly Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), John Cornyn (R-Tex.) and Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), and they began doing the legwork to put together the bill that was introduced Tuesday in the Senate. A companion bill in the House also was introduced by Reps. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.) and Henry Cuellar (D-Tex.).

Read the Senate bill to fund training for police to identify child trafficking

“I’m afraid there’s human trafficking going on out there,” said Cornyn, a former state attorney general, “that most people are not trained to identify. And many times the victim, often a runaway, doesn’t realize they’re a victim until it’s too late.” He said Prestridge was crucial in “helping us identify suspicious behaviors and devising protocols for interactions with potential child victims.”

“If this training becomes routine, we could be saving thousands of children.” Prestridge told The Post last year. The Texas Department of Public Safety declined to discuss the program Wednesday.

Cortez Masto, also a former state attorney general, said that “the first time some of the kids have interaction with somebody is going to be with a police officer on the street. That is key. How that police officer interacts with the kid is so important.” The Nevada senator also worked as an assistant prosecutor in Washington, D.C., and said when she worked prostitution cases, she found that “some of them are victims of sex trafficking at a young age, and they had just graduated” to adult street work. “The key is that first identification” to remove them from the streets, Cortez Masto said.

The bill, titled the Interdiction for the Protection of Child Victims of Exploitation and Human Trafficking Act, assigns responsibility for funding and managing the national training to the Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services. Cornyn said funds already allocated to the department through court-ordered restitution in criminal cases can be used for the training, and Cortez Masto noted there should also be funding for the treatment of victims after a trafficker is arrested.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which gave an award to Prestridge in 2016 for his work, offered its full endorsement of the legislation. “This will allow for a wider distribution of training,” said Staca Shehan, executive director of the case analysis division of NCMEC. “We certainly think this is something that would be impactful, feasible and practical.”

Video: The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children honors Prestridge

No dollar figures were available on what nationwide training might cost, but the senators did not think it would be very expensive, and the bill calls for a “train-the-trainer program,” which would allow local agencies to do their own training once they learn the program. It also calls for tracking the results from departments who receive grants to determine how many officers were trained and how many children were rescued.

Cornyn and Cortez Masto said they did not foresee much opposition to the bills. In divisive times, Cornyn said he enjoyed working on issues with bipartisan support and that “thankfully this is one of them.” Cortez Masto said, “I don’t know of anybody who’s opposed to helping kids.”