When you hear the words “human trafficking,” what comes to mind? Do you understand how terrible it is, but still think to yourself “that’s not something really impacting me personally”?
Maybe it is, and you don’t know it because we are not talking about it enough.
What I am about to tell you is very personal and dear to my heart. Many tears have been shed, and there were countless months of detective work leading to the story I am about to tell you.
Michigan is No. 7 in the nation for human trafficking based on phone calls received by the National Human Trafficking Hotline. It crept into the top 10 in 2015, but still falls lower than states like California and Nevada due to the volume of vacationers who visit those states.
Our family’s story all started about five years ago with a 15-year-old boy named Bruce on Instagram. Bruce was seemingly normal in every way. Little did he know, he was the first step in an elaborate human trafficking ring. Like many of our children today, they really do not understand how social media networks spread over the entire world, and with that come serious threats if not monitored.
Bruce was a “friend” to quite a few of the girls in my daughter’s circle of friends on social media, and they would chat daily. Bruce also had many friends who were being introduced into the circle, and they all began to chat through Instagram and Kik. Shortly after their introduction, I began to see a change in my daughter; she was becoming secretive and sneaky, and being that I fully understand how far the internet reaches and how quickly things can get out of control, I checked up on my daughter on a regular basis. I would say at least biweekly, I would grab her tablet after she went to sleep and dig into her messages and pictures to see if things looked appropriate.
I noticed an unusual time gap in some messages and images, but I truly didn’t think anything of it until about two weeks later. One night, I had a funny feeling and grabbed her tablet to do what I thought would be just another normal check. What I found to this day haunts my mind and makes my heart sink.
It began with a picture, a questionable, inappropriate image for a girl her age, and the sexy pose set my red flag on fire. So my digging turned into a manhunt, checking everything in all her accounts.
You see, Bruce was a real boy, and he was totally naïve to the “friends” he had in his circle. As I finished my digging into her accounts, all I was left with were tears in my eyes and a burning fire in my heart to destroy every boy on her Instagram account — and it was just the beginning.
I harnessed the power of Google to look up and research the secondary accounts of some of the friends in this circle (not something children think, or are willing, to do). Once I saw that four of the “friends” in the circle were clearly adult men, my heartbreak turned to anger and rage. After about two days of endlessly scouring the internet for info on these men, I came to the conclusion that I needed to take action with the police. We were quickly met by the detective of the Cyber Task Force of Portage Police Department and access to all our technology was requested.
After seven months, they called us in to report the most terrifying words I have ever heard: “Mr. and Mrs. Jenkins, can you and your family please come to the police station as soon as possible?” — not something you ever want to hear.
After we arrived, we entered a small conference room in the back of the Portage Police Station and began to listen as the detective explained how my digging may have saved my daughter from abduction.
Bruce was, like I said, a normal 15-year-old boy. What I didn’t know was that the men who were acting as his “friends” had set Bruce up as a scout. His was the first safe face that our children see; he was unknowingly luring young girls into his circle as prey for the men to pick and choose from. The circle of Bruce’s friends list reached the globe, and his over 2,000 followers were nothing more than a smorgasbord of young, unaware children whom these men were chatting with. Our children.
This is not someone else’s problem; this is, right here, right now, and real as the tears I shed for the innocence that was stolen from my daughter. My beautiful girl was prey for these monsters; she was quickly approaching a meetup (in her words), and I fear that I may have never seen my daughter again.
I hope this triggers fear in the hearts of every one of you. Dig into your children’s accounts, ask them questions, and tell them not to have “friends” they don’t actually know. I had no idea just how close I came to never seeing my daughter again. It’s worth the upset it may cause your child to keep them safe. If you do not know or understand what to look for or how to monitor your child’s social media use, then ask someone who does, someone you feel you can trust with the life of your child.
This picture (above) of my daughters may have been the last picture I had with both of them together. This was taken around the time Haylee met Bruce.
For more information, contact National Human Trafficking Resource Center at 1 (888) 373-7888.