“Every 40 seconds a child goes missing in the U.S.”

—Statistic cited in “Hope” music video by Matriarch (Landon Newsom), released Sept. 3, 2020

There was an uproar on Twitter recently when Department of Homeland Security officials announced a new Center for Countering Human Trafficking — and reporters did not ask any questions. A fierce defender of President Trump, a singer who calls herself Matriarch, tweeted angrily about it.

This led us to her Twitter page, where she has pinned a music video at the top with these words: “President @realDonaldTrump has done more to end child trafficking than any President before him. Don’t believe me? Watch my new music video to see all of the action he has taken.”

Nearly 400,000 people have done so. But when we started watching, we saw some statistics that were woefully wrong or hyped. So let’s take a look.

The Facts

Watching the video, we wondered about QAnon, the far-right conspiracy theory that says leading Democrats are operating a global sex-trafficking ring while plotting against the president. (It’s a bit more convoluted than that.) Trump notably has refused to disavow QAnon. On her Facebook page, Matriarch has written, “Elected Dems, Big Tech and media are complicit in the cover-up of human trafficking.”

But Matriarch, in an email to The Fact Checker, insisted: “None of this is the Q stuff, I’m not a Q person, don’t follow it and know nothing about it. I have been fighting for trafficking victims before Trump was President and will be long after.”

We asked her for her sources of information and then checked them out. Here are examinations of two claims in the video.

“Every 40 seconds a child goes missing in the U.S.”

For this statistic Matriarch supplied a link to a 2005 article in Parents magazine and a 2011 podcast from the FBI in which a bureau official quotes this statistic.

Notice how old those reports are? Well, it gets even worse, because the number is derived from data collected between 1997 and 1999, mainly from a telephone survey in 1999 of 16,111 adult caregivers and 5,015 youths. The results were then weighted based on U.S. Census data.

The 1999 results were released in 2002 by an arm of the Justice Department in a series of reports, as part of the National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway and Throwaway Children (NISMART).

In other words, these numbers come from an era that predates the wide use of mobile phones, which allow parents to keep much closer track of their children, or the creation of Amber alerts (which are also on phones, in Facebook news feeds and so forth).

David Finkelhor, a University of New Hampshire professor who is director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center and a key author of the study, said: “That number is indeed out of date. We know that missing-child episodes reported to law enforcement have declined.” He cited statistics showing a 43 percent decline in missing children between 1997 and 2012 in state data, and a further drop in missing-person files through 2019.

On top of that, the number in the report — 797,500 missing children a year — that forms the basis for the “every 40 seconds” statistic is an estimate, based on a survey, not hard figures. Few people ever bother to read the report to discover that the figure mostly includes children who are missing because of a benign reason (a parent forgot they were staying at a friend’s house, for instance) or because the child is a runaway. Even then, the survey shows that 77 percent of the runaways come home within a week — and more than 99 percent return eventually.

“The trafficking problem is a minuscule part of the missing-children problem,” Finkelhor said, noting that kids who are trafficked may not be missing but still living at home.

“More arrests were made in Trump’s first year than any single year of previous administrations.”

For this line, Matriarch supplied a link to a 2017 Justice Department report and a chart produced by our colleagues at FactCheck.org. That chart came as part of an excellent debunking of claims about Trump’s prowess in combating trafficking.

As FactCheck.org pointed out, the numbers concerning trafficking arrests across administrations are incomplete and cannot be easily compared. The data they found show arrests going down in the first years of the Trump administration before going up in 2019.

The chart Matriarch sent us actually concerned prosecutions, not arrests. That’s better because experts say arrests are not an especially good metric. But the chart shows that while prosecutions went up in 2017, in 2018 and 2019 they went down — below the levels of the Obama administration. So focusing just on the first year is misleading.

Moreover, when looking specifically at child sex trafficking prosecutions, they have fallen sharply in the Trump administration.

“The number of prosecutions for child sex trafficking has significantly declined during the Trump Administration, after climbing steadily during the Obama years,” according to a report released Oct. 26 by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University. “Prosecutions reached a peak of 273 and 277 in FY 2016 and FY 2017, respectively. Since then, the number of cases dipped to 221 in FY 2018, and then continued to decline to less than 200 in FYs 2019 and 2020.”

When we expressed skepticism about her data, Matriarch replied: “Compared to recent presidents we can only judge by the data we have and with that data you can make a very strong fact driven case that he has acted on this issue in an extremely notable way. People can hate him for his tweets or his brash style but on this issue he’s undeniably acted.”

The Pinocchio Test

Matriarch needs to revise the claims in her video. The statement that a child is missing every 40 seconds is wrong and misleading, disputed by the researcher who produced the study she cites. As for Trump effectively fighting child trafficking, the data shows that prosecutions have actually declined sharply on his watch.

For many years, we have warned that faulty data on trafficking often undermines the case that advocates want to make, and this is yet another good example.

Four Pinocchios

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Previous fact checks on human trafficking statistics: