“People don’t realize this is going on in their own backyards.”
The National Human Trafficking Hotline fielded 7,621 cases of reported human trafficking in 2016, including the daughter of a couple PEOPLE identifies as Maureen and David. The girl disappeared with a friend that January, and three weeks later, Maureen and David contacted Saved in America (or SIAM), a volunteer group of U.S. Navy Seals, police detectives, and other specialists. Within a week, SIAM had helped locate and rescue the 16-year-old from the sex trafficking ring into which she had been sold.
In fact, thanks to this San Diego-based group's expertise in investigation, surveillance, and police collaboration, it has assisted in 57 successful child recoveries over 36 months, according to the SIAM website. And the group also connects the rescued juveniles with treatment and rehabilitation options.
Amid the human trafficking problem, SIAM fills an important role. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimates that 20 percent of runaways reported are sex trafficking victims, according to its website, but "law enforcement is responsible for so much, they are constantly over-extended and are not legally required to perform due diligence to find a 'runaway' child."
And law enforcement officials are grateful for the help, judging by the testimonials on the SIAM website. "It is partnerships such as this that play a significant role in law enforcement today, not only from a public safety standpoint but also as an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of those who have been victimized," Mike Williams, a sheriff from Duval County, Fla., wrote to the team.
"They can be very helpful because victims sometimes don't trust police," San Diego County Chief Deputy District Attorney Summer Stephan told VICE News of private groups like Saved in America. "You know, a private investigator doesn't have the police powers, and so as long as they abide by their ethical duties of staying in their lane and operating and providing information to police, then we welcome them."
Joseph Travers, a chaplain and private investigator, founded SIAM after hearing about the 2009 abduction and death of Brittanee Drexel. "I knew that street gangs, prison gangs, and cartels took over drug trafficking in the 1980s, and then they took over sex trafficking at the turn of the century," he told the magazine. "When I read about Brittanee Drexel, who disappeared off the face of the planet, I just knew gangs were involved."
Since founding SIAM, Travers has met with many parents just like Maureen and David, ones who are frustrated by the pace of law enforcement's investigations. "Most of the parents are in a panic stage, and they're waiting for something to happen," Travers told VICE News. "So now the family is at a standstill. They have to go find their child on their own, and most people don't know how to do that, so we fill that gap."
His son, Joshua Travers, is a former U.S. Marine who now serves as SIAM's Chief of Case Management. "People don't realize this is going on in their own backyards. This isn't in some far away country with very poor people," the younger Travers explained to PEOPLE. "This could be your next-door neighbor, your child, anyone's child. A lot of these kids are from a middle-class family in the United States. They aren't incredibly poor or involved in abuse or bad situations [at home]."
"We're there for the parent as a resource," his father told VICE. "I think the greatest thing that could happen is if Saved in America didn't have to exist."