DALLAS (CBSDFW.COM) - Often lured online or looking to escape unstable homes, federal law enforcement partners say human trafficking is exploding right before our unseeing eyes.
"Quite frankly, there's a lot of money to be made," said Ryan Spradlin, special agent in charge for Homeland Security Investigations Dallas. Spradlin says human trafficking is a billion-dollar criminal enterprise, where people and children are bought and sold at a rate second only to drugs.
"Unlike narcotics, where that contraband is being consumed, and then you run out of it and have to bring in more or order more, we're talking about human beings that can be exploited over and over and over again," said Spradlin.
So over several weeks in February, federal agencies worked with police in Dallas, Fort Worth, Arlington and Grand Prairie to locate 31 missing children. Most were runaways, but seven were in danger of being trafficked.
"Some of them want to be found, some of them don't want to be found," shared Quintella Downs-Bradshaw, Acting US Marshal for the Northern District. "You may have some you do come across that may even be hostile when you do find them, where others are very grateful."
Downs-Bradshaw says the collaborative law enforcement effort that grew out of months of planning rescued children as young as 13.
"One young lady they encountered," recalled Downs-Bradshaw, "she said she prayed the day before. And she felt like something was gonna happen, so that made everybody feel good."
The federal law enforcement partners say it is important to raise community awareness of the issue as these often-unseen victims will stop being invisible when the community starts to take notice.
"Noticing whether individuals are withdrawn, or ever have forms of ID," shared Spradlin, "[or] seem to be under the control of other individuals. So the big point I'm making here is community awareness is the key."
These agencies are also working to send the message that law enforcement is on the side of the victims and that there are resources to help them reclaim their lives: even if they unknowingly put themselves in danger.
"That's exactly right," said Downs-Bradshaw. "But they should know that there's still hope. There is a way out. There's a way."
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