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

Capt. Derek Prestridge of the Texas Department of Public Safety developed a program to help patrol officers recognize the signs of child trafficking. (Tamir Kalifa/For The Washington Post)

When Deputy Patrick Paquette pulled to a stop on Interstate 20 in Georgia in January 2013, he didn't anticipate a career-altering experience. He saw a young man and a far younger girl standing on the side of the highway. Both were handcuffed. The pair had been detained by an officer who had pulled them over for speeding, smelled pot and discovered a bag of marijuana. To Paquette, a Greene County sheriff's deputy with 11 years of experience, it seemed like a routine case of drug possession. The man looked sullen. The young girl looked ...

Paquette took a closer look at the girl. She seemed to be about the same age as one of Paquette’s sons and weighed down by some combination of sadness and fear. She kept glancing warily toward the young man.

Paquette moved the girl out of the man’s sight and earshot and started asking questions. How old was she? “Seventeen.” Who was the young man? “My sister’s boyfriend.” The two had traveled from her home, in Montgomery County, Ala., the girl told Paquette, through Georgia, seeing relatives. They had spent the previous night in an Augusta hotel. As she talked, she avoided looking Paquette in the eye.

“It didn’t really add up,” Paquette says now. “How many 17-year-old girls spend the night in a hotel with their sister’s boyfriend?” By this time, he says, the signs that this wasn’t a routine drug-possession case were “just slapping me in the face.” The disparity in ages between the man, 29, and the girl; the unlikely story of their travels together; the girl’s evident fear; the illegal drugs, enough for personal use but not enough to imply intent to sell — all of these factors suggested a more sinister story.

The drugs provided grounds for a wider investigation, so Paquette ordered a search of the girl’s suitcase. Inside, he and the other officer discovered additional clues: dozens of condoms, lubricant, sex toys and a small pile of lingerie. The girl and the man, Johnathon Nathaniel Kelly, were still separated. Kelly could not see or hear the girl. But Paquette, returning to her, kept his voice low.

“Do you need help?” he asked.

“No,” she told him.

She still refused to look at him, and Paquette didn’t believe her. In a different situation, he might have gotten tough — and, with his rugged face and frame, he could easily intimidate. But he eased off, gently asking the girl to recap her story. Then he leaned down to look into her eyes.

“Do you need help?” he asked again.

The girl opened her mouth as if he’d just turned the key to it. “Sir,” she said, “please get me some help,” and began to cry.

Paquette uncuffed her, loaded her into the car and drove her to the station for an interview with a specialist in sex crimes. The girl, Rebecca (she asked that her last name be withheld, to protect her identity because she is a sex-trafficking victim), sobbed. “I’ve been praying,” she told him, “every second I could, to be rescued.” Kelly was arrested and later sentenced to 11 years for interstate transportation of a minor for prostitution.

The truth is, if Rebecca had encountered Paquette just months earlier, she would have been arrested. “Right when I felt like she was lying to me,” he says, “I know I would have just said, ‘Lock them up.’ ” But Paquette had recently taken a Texas-based training program, called Interdiction for the Protection of Children (IPC), which taught him how to spot indicators of child-sex trafficking and conduct roadside investigations. Among the warning signs: drivers who are older and unrelated to their victims, who tell unlikely stories to the police, or who possess illegal drugs in amounts consistent with personal use — to keep their companions docile. Victims, Paquette learned, often lie to the police in obvious ways, sometimes appearing scattered or nonsensical — telltale effects of fear and trauma. They continually try to make eye contact with their abuser, as if looking for signals or orders. And they frequently possess sex toys, condoms, lubricant and lingerie inappropriate for their age.

Some of these details might seem obvious; but, surprisingly, before the development of the IPC program in 2009 by a Texas Department of Public Safety officer named Derek Prestridge, there was no comparable, comprehensive training program to help patrol officers — those most likely to encounter children in distress — identify missing, exploited or at-risk kids.

The success of the program has been, unavoidably, difficult to quantify. Before the creation of IPC training, Texas DPS kept no record of “child rescues.” But Texas state troopers have made 341 such rescues since the program’s inception; and in formalized follow-up interviews, virtually all of the troopers said the training was key to spurring them to action.

The DPS has made the training available outside of Texas, and states that have participated are also reporting upticks in child rescues. But the training is far from standard. According to Prestridge, now a captain, IPC training has reached 7,709 patrol officers and child services professionals; according to the Justice Department, there are about 750,000 police officers in the United States (the statistics don’t seem to break out patrol officers). “If this training becomes routine,” Prestridge says, “we could be saving thousands of children.” Unfortunately, as he has learned, even the most promising approaches to the most disturbing problems can be difficult to implement.

Thus far, IPC training has spread mostly through word of mouth and chance encounters. For example, after Cathy Meyers, executive director of Maryland's Center for Children, met Prestridge during a 2016 law enforcement seminar in Austin, she arranged a Maryland training session through the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention. That's how Derek Prestridge wound up standing in a basement conference room of the Maryland Department of Transportation last summer, walking an audience of about 80 officers through the epiphany that led to this program.

One afternoon in 2005, he told them, he came across an article describing the breakup of a multistate sex trafficking ring, which regularly drove through Texas with captive children. The traffickers even used Interstate 10 through Prestridge’s jurisdiction. “I wondered,” he recalled, “if any of my officers had come in contact with this car.”

These were the days before the state kept child rescue statistics. As Prestridge told the audience, he could readily discover that, in 2008, Texas state troopers recovered 1,812 stolen cars, arrested 12,615 fugitives and seized 69,063.99 pounds of pot — wryly noting the department’s zeal to “record all the marijuana we recover, to the fraction of an ounce.” But how many recovered missing or exploited children were listed? “That number,” he said, “was zero.”

He knew zero couldn’t be true. Runaways are sometimes discovered on the highway, for instance. What was true was that no one had thought child-related cases were important enough to break out as a statistic. The lack of rigor wasn’t specific to Texas; Prestridge surveyed 10 other states and found the same thing.

Now Prestridge stood before his audience and asked: “How many of you have ever said, at the start of a shift, ‘I’m gonna get me a drunk driver tonight’?” Numerous hands rose.

“How many of you have said, ‘I’m gonna bust a drug dealer’?” Again, many hands.

“How many of you have ever said, ‘I’m going to rescue a child tonight’? Or ‘I’m going to catch a child molester’?” No response.

Prestridge asks this question at every training session — this was his 97th — and he’s become accustomed to that reaction. “Why is that?” he asked. “Why don’t police make that a goal before their shift?” His audience was silent. “I’ll tell you one reason why,” he offered. “Because there’s no box to check.”

The 44-year-old trooper, still fit, with dark brown hair trimmed cop-close, noted that there are boxes to check for arrests, confiscated drugs, speeding tickets, drunk drivers, even seat-belt infractions. Those boxes, he argued, invariably reflect and influence any officer’s priorities. “This isn’t to say that police don’t want to rescue children,” said Prestridge. “Of course we do. The problem is that we haven’t really known how.”

After identifying this worrisome gap in Texas DPS statistics, Prestridge looked for a training course about recognizing — and rescuing — endangered children. After all, police are taught readily observable details that are possible indications of drug trafficking: Vehicles that lean to one side on level ground could be hiding contraband; a tire jack on the passenger seat could signal narcotics hidden in the wheel well. When he found no comparable program for child trafficking, he gathered a team within Texas DPS — including Texas Rangers, criminal analysts and victim services counselors — to build a training course.

They found and interviewed police who had made child rescues, asked what raised their suspicions and searched for commonalities. They pored over reports of the ways trauma, abuse and trafficking victims think and behave, searching for best practices police could use in the field to gain trust and information. The initial effort took more than a year, culminating in 2009, when Texas DPS trained its first class. “We made our first rescue in 2010,” says Prestridge, “and they kept coming after that.”

The program triggered a policy change at Texas DPS, which now records a statistic for all “child rescues” generated by traffic stops, most of which fall into the categories of sex abuse, Internet crimes, familial abduction or sex trafficking. By 2014, Texas DPS had logged more than 140 rescues.

One particularly remarkable rescue occurred in July of that year. In Hidalgo County, then-Sgt. Virgil Verduzco of Texas DPS spotted a vehicle with a defective taillight. He stopped the car around 2 a.m., discovering a 20-year-old man, according to his license, and a younger girl. “Police normally think about guns and drugs,” he recalls, “but the training really opens your mind to think about children.”

Verduzco ordered the young man to exit the car and walked him behind the vehicle. “What’s the girl’s name?” he asked.

The young man didn’t know. “We met through social media,” he explained. “We’re gonna hang out.”

Verduzco left the man there, then approached the girl and asked for her mother’s number. The woman answered, groggy with sleep.

Verduzco named the girl, asking: “Is that your daughter?”

“Yes,” she said. “But my daughter’s asleep in her room.”

Verduzco requested that she check, and in a flash she returned, thanking him. He’d recovered a 14-year-old girl — lured out by an adult she met online — before her mother even knew she was missing. Joel Contreras Jr. later pleaded guilty to enticement of a child.

In the early years of the program, Prestridge began supplying the training to a few outside agencies, where it was well received. In 2014, Texas DPS Director Steve McCraw gave him a mandate to share it with any police department that asked — anywhere in the United States. "It was an easy decision to make when we realized we had a new way to protect children," says McCraw. "Our great hope is that this program becomes part of the routine application of officers' duties everywhere — so that it is no longer considered unique."

That same year, Prestridge made an important connection in the federal government. He was attending an invitation-only summit on long-term missing children at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Alexandria, Va., when he struck up a conversation with Michael Bourke, a forensic psychologist in the U.S. Marshals Service in Arlington.

Bourke’s role as chief of the Marshals’ Behavioral Analysis Unit requires him to develop psychological profiles of fugitives on a case-by-case basis — a kind of daily, ongoing experiment testing preexisting models against individual examples. “I was impressed by Derek and what he had to say,” says Bourke, “but I was also a little skeptical. … I knew you had to be careful vetting these indicators” of child trafficking.

Prestridge told Bourke about one potential indicator he’d been mulling: Some IPC-trained police reported that the trafficking suspects they arrested often bore tattoos on their neck or face. Bourke didn’t “see how there could be a connection” but volunteered to conduct an experiment using the U.S. Marshals’ national database. He pulled 600 random samples of people arrested for trafficking children and 600 arrested for assault and found that, yes, child traffickers were more likely to bear tattoos on their face and neck (assault suspects were more prone to have tattoos on their hands).

The individual numbers were small — 20 hits among the sex traffickers, for instance — but Bourke said they were statistically significant enough that Prestridge could include facial tattoos as an indicator. And he joined the team. From his U.S. Marshals office, Bourke now vets Texas DPS’s evolving list of indicators, which has swelled to 361, including large numbers of condoms, particularly of brands sold in bulk online; and loose hard drives or SIM cards, which are often used for transporting child pornography.

The program has also evolved to include a section on what patrol officers can look for inside homes. “The presence of any one indicator might not be that big a deal,” says Bourke, “but when officers know them, and certainly if they see a cluster of them, they can use them in the field to guide their investigation.”

The program has racked up results and received praise outside Texas. In April 2015, six children were rescued as part of a 72-hour initiative involving multistate trafficking checkpoints (similar to sobriety checkpoints) led by the Texas DPS. "That may not sound like a staggering number," said Col. Frank Milstead, director of Arizona's DPS, when announcing the results, "but I assure you if one of those six kids was your kid, that number is staggering." Arizona DPS Capt. Jennifer Pinnow says the IPC program has been "vital" in her state, which now tracks child rescues, recording 42 in 2016 and 57 in 2017.

In 2016, Prestridge won an award from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Pete Banks, retired director of training and outreach at the center, says the IPC program “provides exactly what’s needed, an intensive training that focuses on the population in law enforcement that can make the greatest difference.”

The federal government is taking notice as well. Two FBI agents co-wrote a long, laudatory essay about the program in the bureau’s Law Enforcement Bulletin in 2015. Alexandra Gelber, deputy chief in the Department of Justice’s Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section, says she’s “convinced of the program’s merits” and likes the cost-effectiveness of using an existing resource: patrol officers.

But a program needs more than praise to spread across the country; it needs funding and a federal agency willing to take on the task of disseminating it. The fight against drug trafficking has benefited from money allocated to the war on drugs and the Drug Enforcement Administration’s ability to spearhead training. In contrast, Texas DPS has been providing the IPC training on just $95,945 in federal grant money it received in 2014 from the DOJ’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services. Larger federal grants, Prestridge learned, are too narrowly focused to cover IPC’s range of crimes and victims. And even if Texas DPS found a pot of money somewhere, it simply doesn’t have the staff to train the nation’s patrol officers: Prestridge, who is assigned to the training academy, and his team hold many other responsibilities within the department.

Help may come from what might first seem like an unlikely agency: the U.S. Marshals Service. While marshals are mostly known as the officers who protect the federal judiciary, operate the witness protection program and capture fugitives, they have long leveraged their ability to find missing bad guys into finding missing children. In 2005, they installed a program manager at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. In 2015, aided by a law allowing them to assist law enforcement agencies in missing-children cases, they established a Missing Child Unit, which has assisted in the recovery of more than 1,000 kids. Late last summer, the service agreed to become what Bourke calls “the force multiplier” that will push out IPC training across the nation; the plan is for the Marshals Service to begin training local police departments this year. “We’ve already seen how successful the IPC program is by the number of children who’ve been rescued since its inception, and we are committed to seeing that continue with more training opportunities,” says Derrick Driscoll, assistant director for the U.S. Marshals Investigative Operations Division.

Texas DPS and Bourke will train and certify classes of U.S. Marshals to present the program; those Marshals will then teach colleagues and classes of local officers. “We’ve got 3,000 deputy Marshals stationed all over the country with preexisting relationships at every level of law enforcement,” says Bourke. “The growth of this thing, as we develop Marshals to disseminate the training, should just be exponential.”

Back at the Maryland training session, Prestridge told a story involving the Washington region. A 16-year-old girl in Abilene, Tex., met a man online who took her to a series of hotels, seeing 12 customers per day, all the way to Pentagon City in Arlington. He then headed west again, on a circuitous path back toward Texas, and evaded two police encounters.

The first officer stopped them in Fairfax County, Va., for a routine traffic violation, and arrested the man for drug possession. The officer didn’t recognize the large quantity of condoms, or $4,000 in cash the man possessed, as signs of sex trafficking. The man made bail the next day, and the pair continued their trip.

The second officer, a state trooper in Denver who pushed them back onto the road after their car ran into an embankment during a snowstorm, also missed the signs. Finally, about 15 minutes from Abilene, Trooper Connor Hardin, an IPC graduate, stopped them and recognized the indicators. He started asking questions, arrested the man and sparked an investigation.

By the time Prestridge finished this story, the second and final day of the Maryland class was nearly over. Attendees glanced at one another with a new resolve. Prestridge said he expected them to start rescuing kids, too. “One of you,” he said, “at least one of you will.”

Afterward, Senior Trooper Joseph Ekani said the class made him recall a traffic stop involving a male driver with a young female passenger, lots of cash and a pile of prepaid phone cards (an IPC indicator because the cards allow criminals to make calls anonymously). “I could tell something was going on. I just wasn’t sure how to proceed,” Ekani said. “Now that I know what I know, I’m not going to let that happen again.”

Since that first training, a small group of Maryland officers that underwent a special, intensive version of the IPC course has trained an additional class of 35 Maryland state and local police. The plan is to conduct new classes every six months, including a course that will begin on March 8 with 80 more officers. Though Maryland keeps some child-related statistics — calls to Child Protective Services, for example — like Texas initially, it has no category for child rescues. Maryland State Police spokesman Greg Shipley says that an initiative to gather this new statistic — which could involve as many as 150 police agencies — is in progress, but he could not provide a timeline.

Prestridge says recording child rescues as a separate statistic is “important because it just sends a message, through the whole organization, to be mindful of the children we see — and to be able to recognize and investigate any sign that something might be wrong.”

That's exactly what Deputy Patrick Paquette did back in 2013 on that Georgia interstate, when he became the answer to Rebecca's prayers. Two years later, Rebecca invited him to her high school graduation. "I wanted him to see," she says, "that I am not wasting this second chance at life he gave me." Paquette attended, sitting there with a rare kind of satisfaction — and humility. "It was kind of overwhelming," he says, "and an honor."

Steve Volk is a writer at large for Philadelphia Magazine and a contributing editor for Discover.

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