Millions of men, women, and children are taken from their homes and sexually exploited every year. The International Labour Organization estimates that more than 40 million people are held in modern slavery on any given day. Some of them are used in bizarre occult rituals, while others are experimented on for medical purposes.
A group of retired Navy SEALs, police detectives, and law enforcement are doing their best to save them, and bring them home.
The volunteers of Saved in America (SIAM) work as private investigators in the fight against human trafficking. Working under the President’s Interagency Task Force to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons (PITF), they’re facing an uphill battle, but they’re work is none the less critical.
According to the Polaris Project, the the U.S National Human Trafficking Hotline received 8,042 reports of human trafficking in 2016 and 6,244 the following year, most of them children and adults.
SIAM is just one of many groups working to bring these numbers down to zero, and since 2014, SIAM has helped authorities recover 208 missing children, many of them taken against their will.
A harsh reality remains, only about half of all human trafficking victims are ever recovered.
There is hope found in the fact that more victims are reaching out for help directly. In 2016, 2,042 survivors contacted the Hotline, 24% more than authorities had made contact with the prior year, the Polaris Project reports. In each of those cases, those forced into sexual exploitation were most likely coerced by an intimate partner, while spurious job offers made up the most common gateway to slave labor conditions.
Founded by retired police commissioner and licensed investigator Joseph Travers, SIAM also provides assistance to high risk juvenile shelters, protecting the children from further exploitation by pimps and predators.
Travers has been dedicated to recovering children and adult trafficking victims since the disappearance of 17-year-old Brittanee Drexel in 2009. Drexel was last seen at a hotel in Bar Harbor, South Carolina, having left home during spring break without telling her mother. The only evidence ever obtained regarding her disappearance was an anecdotal confession from a prison inmate who said the teen was raped, shot, and fed to alligators, but it was never enough to build a case.
“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,” Travers told VICE. “When I read about Brittanee Drexel, who disappeared off the face of the planet, I just knew gangs were involved.”
Since then, Travers and SIAM have been meeting with the parents of missing children, many of them worried and frustrated with having to find their kids on their own.
Now, they have a team of experienced trafficking investigators on their side.
“People don’t realize this is going on in their own backyards. This isn’t in some far away country with very poor people,” Travers’ son, Joshua Travers, a former U.S. Marine who now serves as SIAM’s Chief of Case Management, told 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].”
Learn more in the video below.
Matthew Russell is a West Michigan native and with a background in journalism, data analysis, cartography and design thinking. He likes to learn new things and solve old problems whenever possible, and enjoys bicycling, going to the dog park, spending time with his daughter, and coffee.