HANNIBAL, Mo. — “Sound of Freedom,” a movie starring Jim Caviezel and Mira Sorvino, is based on the story of Tim Ballard, a former U.S. Department for Homeland Security Agent who set up a sting operation to rescue children from international child trafficking.
It begins with a father dropping his children off to a high-profile beauty queen at a fake modeling audition. The father returns at the designated time to find no trace of the modeling audition or his children, who along with a group of other children were shipped to Columbia and quickly lost to child trafficking.
“Sound of Freedom” has now generated more than $130 million. On its July 4 release date, the movie nearly made back its $14.5 million budget, beating the same-day release of the fifth Indiana Jones movie by more than $2 million.
The movie has sparked conversations around the country about child trafficking. People want to know more about the $150 billion industry and the estimated 250,000 children victimized by it each year. Most of all, they want to know if it’s happening in their communities.
Stefanie Kaiser led one of those discussions this week at Java Jive in Hannibal at a United Way of the Mark Twain Area event. Kaiser has been a commercial sexual exploitation of children coordinator for the Child Advocacy Center for more than two years. She also is a retired detective who investigated crimes against children for 30 years.
Kaiser led a discussion with nearly 20 concerned parents and citizens about what child trafficking looks like in their neighborhoods. She said child trafficking is a local problem, but it usually looks different from the events shown in “Sound of Freedom.”
Holding her phone up to the group, Kaiser said almost every case has a common denominator.
“In any community — rural, urban, suburban — all the kids have phones, so they are really easy to reach,” she said.
Kaiser said no apps are safe for kids without constant conversations and moderation. She said it surprised her to learn at a recent conference in St. Charles County that gaming apps are now predator hotspots. Roblox and Minecraft were among the specific apps mentioned.
Roblox is an app hosting a variety of different games. Minecraft is one of the best-selling games of all time. Both apps have online interaction with other players, such as the ability to chat and send direct messages — giving easy access for predators to initiate conversations.
Kaiser said a child trafficker is well-trained in persuading children, from exchanging explicit photos to personal meetings either online or in-person.
“Making profit off of it is what they want. There is always a new scam, and they are going to put a lot of effort into whatever that new scam is,” she said.
Kaiser also sees instances of kids contacting someone local, usually online, willing to buy things for them like drugs, vape pens, alcohol or even rides.
“In exchange, they will start out slow,” she said. “Maybe they want a picture, something as innocent as their school photo. It becomes increasingly invasive with pictures, videos and eventually meeting up for sex. It doesn’t take much time for this to start once communication is initiated.”
Kaiser talked about one case in which a ninth grade child used the same person for over a year.
“The same adult male would meet her about a block away from her house, and she would exchange sex, which means she was raped or violated as a minor because she cannot consent, in exchange for drugs and other stuff,” Kaiser said.
Denise Damron, director of the United Way for the Mark Twain Area, said these trafficked children are not taken from their homes or missing.
“They were living at their house the whole time, and parents weren’t aware this was going on. This happens in our community, and parents have their blinders on. It’s hard, because you can’t watch your kids every second of the day,” Damron said.
She gave an example of a child lying to her parents about where she is going.
The child would say, “Mom, I am going to walk to Susie’s house.” The parent replies that the child has been walking to Susie’s house quite often lately.
“Yeah, we are really best friends,” the child would say.
“But then she doesn’t go to Susie’s,” Damron said.
“These parents know Susie, so that checks out,” Kaiser added. “These kids are in school with a lot of well-meaning adults around like teachers, counselors, and other kids who wouldn’t think a thing. They don’t report it.”
Most of these situations are discovered through another crime investigation or when someone finds a conversation on the child’s phone. Many victims are confused about consent and afraid they will be in trouble.
“A child who meets someone and gets a ride or their drugs, they often believe they consented to all of that,” Kaiser said. “The bad guy will use that. I have interviewed plenty of suspects who say, ‘The kid wanted it. The kid knew what they were doing. They asked for this.’ It’s them who perpetrated on the child, but the child believes they asked for it and will be in trouble. They say, ‘I showed up there and I guess I consented. I don’t know.’ That’s why they won’t report it.”
Apps are available to monitor and restrict what kids are doing online and on their phones.
Damron said she uses the Bark app to monitor phone use by her children. It notifies her of any concerning searches or communication on phones she has connected it to.
Kaiser, who has adult children, said she doesn’t envy parents trying to navigate the online world with their kids.
Asked for the best way to protect kids from predators, she said, “Training, teaching, talking to them and staying on top of them. When I say this, I am not sure I could have done it. My kids are grown. It’s scary to me.”
The Conversation Continues
Join Stefanie Kiser and Denise Damron to discuss sex trafficking in a community presentation at United Way of Mark Twain Area, 3062 US-61 in Hannibal at 6 p.m. on Aug. 8.
To learn more about The Child Advocacy Center, follow them on Facebook or visit their website.