"If you're a runaway girl, you're in extreme danger right away. Instantly."
Those are the words of Joseph Travers, founder of Saved in America, a non-profit launched in Oceanside that rescues children from the brutal and ugly world of sex trafficking.
"The key (to rescuing potential victims) is the first 48 hours," said Travers, citing a study ("The Nature and Extent of Gang Involvement in Sex Trafficking in San Diego County") authored by Ami Carpenter, PhD, University of San Diego, and Jamie Gates, PhD, Pt. Loma Nazarene University, and submitted to the U.S. Department of Justice in 2016. "Their study shows that 60 percent of missing girls will be approached by a pimp within the first 48 hours they go missing."
Travers, who served in the U.S. Navy, is a former police officer (eight years in Los Angeles County) and longtime private investigator. He is also an ordained minister who about six years ago, while doing homeless ministry, saw an article about Navy SEALS going overseas and rescuing children from sex trafficking.
"I called the reporter from the Orange County Register and they put me together with the SEALS that were involved with that," said Travers. "With my background in narcotics and gang stuff – because that's who runs the child sex trafficking, the gangbangers – I thought we needed to do this domestically and that's how Saved in America started."
Travers, along with a Navy SEAL and an attorney, began work to establish Saved in America in 2011.
"It took us about three years to fine tune it, get it to where it is," said Travers. "Because we didn't want to go operational until we knew everything we had was just right. Our first operation was December 2014."
That first operation was successful, as were the next 41.
"Forty-two out of 42 cases," responded Travers July 19 when asked how many girls Saved in America had saved. "We're batting 1.000."
The all-volunteer Saved in America team features a roster of 24 people, including 14 ex-Navy SEALS. The staff includes former cops, social networking investigators, an attorney, and a case manager. Saved in America provides its services for free – the organization relies on donations from “regular folks” according to Travers – and gets two to four calls a month from a concerned parent or friend.
“It (child sex trafficking) has gotten worse because the gang members are the pimps,” said Travers. “They go after 13-, 14-, 15-year-olds because the younger the girl, the more money.”
Travers said the gangs target girls that are vulnerable and capitalize on the situation.
“They use social networking and the schools – junior high schools and high schools,” said Travers. “They plant certain people to look for girls, ones where maybe their parents just recently divorced or something's going on, like a girl that just broke up with a guy.
“Kids are kids and they go through dramatic experiences when they're in junior high and high school,” continued Travers. “They'll focus on those kids – mostly girls – and develop a relationship with them and then gain their trust and then slowly pull them out of their safe zone of family and friends and put them in their own zone.
"It's just ugly, an incredible form of manipulation,” Travers continued. “We call it the ‘Romeo method’ in the sex trafficking industry. That's how the vast majority of all the girls are lured into it. And then they take the girl to a party or somewhere, beat them up, take their phone away from them, inject them with heroine and that's it. The heroine becomes more important than anything else.”
Travers said any girl can potentially land in this bad spot.
"The average age is 15,” said Travers. “We've had them as young as 11 all the way to 17, and from all different areas of life. From a few girls who were in bad areas – by bad areas I mean things like drug trafficking and things like that – to a girl whose parent was an attorney and lived in a nice neighborhood, like Del Mar or Newport Beach. We've had all different types – Caucasian, Hispanic, black – and one who was on the verge of being a professional athlete."
The key to finding a girl is information, according to Travers.
"It is gathering the information and analyzing the information,” said Travers. “Charting it out. Somebody's missing, and if you have the missing point, we just go backwards. And it takes us to where they are at."
In today’s world, social networking investigators are vital. Travers said Saved in America looks at Facebook accounts and “everything extended to that because somebody knows something, and you just got to find that person who knows something."
Saved in America will contact the missing child's friends or have someone else call them, and also use anonymous informants. "Every area that law enforcement uses, we use it, but on a private investigation level," said Travers.
Once Saved in America has located the girl, they call law enforcement.
"Our goal is to be the eyes and the ears for the police," said Travers. "Because the SEALS, one of the biggest things they have going for them, they're silent warriors. They go someplace for surveillance and nobody even knows they were there. As soon as we get eyes on our girl, we call law enforcement to come and get her."
Thus far, Saved in America has carried out its missions without any physical confrontations.
"Out of the 42 recoveries, we haven't had to touch one person," said Travers. "Most of the time they don't even know we were there. Nobody knows. One of the rescues they knew we were there because it was gang infested and they had lookouts all over. But we did get the girl out of that house. She was 14."
Once law enforcement has secured the girl, Saved in America immediately contacts her parents.
"We'll follow the officers to the station and make sure we coordinate with the parents so the parents get there," said Travers. "And then we'll coordinate with whatever rehab they're going to go to."
Saved in America will also help a victim's family with legal issues.
"If the family wants to file a civil suit against the bad guy or guys, we provide an attorney to do that for them," said Travers.
People don't have to wait until a child goes missing to contact Saved in America. Travers said people can call the organization if they notice something is dangerously amiss with a child.
"For example, if a girl used to be involved in all kinds of activities but is now starting to go with this other kind of crowd that just smokes dope all day and ditches school and has gang members, she is in jeopardy," said Travers. "So maybe we can prevent it from happening in the first place."
Travers said parents shouldn't waste any time in contacting Saved in America if a child runs away from home.
"If you have a child that goes missing, call us," said Travers. "Because the police have limited resources. The priority level for a runaway, unless you can prove the runaway needs medication right away, is not a high priority. So we're here to work with law enforcement and to fill that gap and be a resource."
Travers, who has penned multiple books on private investigation, has a new book out entitled "Investigation of Missing and Exploited Children: The Gateway of Child Sex Trafficking."
"It's the history of Saved in America," said Travers of the book. "Real stories that show the correlation between runaway and missing kids and sex trafficking and how to prevent it."
Travers said the book can help parents identify signs of a troubled teen and also improve their awareness of the dangers that are out there.
"Every parent should know social networking better than their child," said Travers. "If you're trying to teach your child math, you should be ahead of them in math. And it's the same with social networking. You just can't say 'well that's what kids do.' It also explains what parents should do if their child does go missing. It's pretty comprehensive."
For more information about Saved in America, visit savedinamerica.org. To contact the organization, call the tip hotline at (760) 348-8808.