East Idaho organization works to rescue children from sex trafficking

Courtesy image

Courtesy image

By Jenni Whiteley, For the Journal

In Southeast Idaho, the horrors of child sex trafficking seem more like a subject for far-away developing nations.

But Matthew Smith, the executive director of Operation Shield, an Idaho Falls-based non-profit organization fighting to prevent, rescue and treat victims, says, “It’s happening right here.”

Smith, Idaho Falls Police Chief Bryce Johnson and a local survivor will all be available Wednesday during a Community Round Table at Hillcrest High School’s Performing Arts Center in Idaho Falls at 7 p.m. to answer questions about sex trafficking.

Smith said that on Oct. 26 of last year alone he found 28 ads in Southeast Idaho for sex trafficking on places such as Craigslist. He also stated that in 2017, 22 cases of sex trafficking were identified in Southeast Idaho news stories where the child was recovered and prosecution procedures had begun.

“The rule of thumb that we go by is that for every one recovered, there are at least five more in need of recovery,” he said.

Smith also said that a lot of child pornography is produced in Southeast Idaho.

“There’s a whole dark web that has a black economy that sells and trades this garbage,” he said. “There’s a lot of money involved in it. This isn’t pornography of a child in the bathtub either. This is horrific stuff.”

In 2010, Smith, Doug Andrus, Mike Adams, and Nick Thompson started the Prosperity Project to bring medical aid to victims of the earthquake in Haiti. The Prosperity Project leaders were approached by Operation Underground Railroad and asked to also help provide therapy to rescued sex trafficking children in orphanages. They found that many orphaned children or families who could no longer afford to provide for their children were falling prey to sex traffickers with promises of food, shelter and safety.

Smith said that right now the Prosperity Project is working with a Haitian orphanage that houses 123 children. The orphanage had originally identified eight sex trafficking victims, but when Smith’s team tested the others, they found the total number was closer to 60.

Operation Shield was started in 2013, which was a time when Smith said, “We started seeing the signs of sex trafficking here in Eastern Idaho and decided we were not going to ignore our own backyard.”

So far, Operation Shield has only been able to help fully rescue six victims, though the need is much greater.

“A big problem is that very few people know we exist,” Smith said. “Another reason is that these girls do not seek out help on their own. We normally only get our referrals from other survivors with whom I interact. Traffickers isolate and teach them not to trust normal people and then you’ve got the ‘Johns’ [people who pay for their services] who appear as normal people, yet are abusing them right and left so they don’t know who to trust.”

Smith continued, “The tragedy is that very few of these victims actually escape, even here in Idaho. The girls that I network with are saying that only about 2 percent of the girls who are in the business live through it. The average life expectancy, which is backed up with evidence, is only seven years from the point of entry. They are usually killed by being beaten to death or shot.”

Smith said that Southeast Idaho doesn’t yet have adequate training and resources to identify, rescue and rehabilitate this population of victims, which is Operation Shield’s focus right now.

Besides not knowing who to trust, Smith says that victims do not seek help for fear of harm to themselves or their families by their pimps. Those at Operation Shield are training personnel such as police officers and emergency room workers to recognize victims and ask the right questions at “points of contact” to help them escape.

In October, more than 70 police officers from Eastern Idaho and Wyoming received training from those at Operation Shield at a conference in Idaho Falls. The organization is also informing therapists about the trauma and needs of sex trafficking victims.

“Many therapists hold the belief that these victims are just typical PTSD clients,” Smith said. “But Complex PTSD is PTSD on steroids due to someone continually being traumatized from an environment that they don’t feel they can escape from. … You have to understand where they are coming from and build a relationship or they will close down.”

Though the trauma is deep, Smith said that recovery and hope is possible for these victims. He said that the therapy that Bob Stahn, the clinical director for Operation Shield and owner of Well Spring Counseling, uses is creating miracles in the lives of these victims. Though the trauma is always there, survivors have been able to learn to cope and live healthy lifestyles to rebuild their lives.

Smith said that victims of sex trafficking do not fit a stereotype.

“We’d like to believe that it’s poor kids from the bad part of town or an issue of poor parenting, but that’s not how the facts bear out,” he said. “I have seen victims where the mother is a school teacher and the dad is in law enforcement.”

Smith also said that most child victims in the U.S. aged 11-16 fall prey to sex traffickers not by being kidnapped, but through social media sites such as Facebook, SnapChat or chat rooms.

Children in these developmental stages are trying to gain their independence and sometimes rebel against authority figures. Predators are looking for this vulnerability and create false characters. They pose as someone who loves these children more than their parents and groom the children away from their support systems.

The predator begins an online romantic relationship with the child, which often includes sending inappropriate pictures and promises of marriage if the child will run away. Once the child leaves, the predator tells the child that they need money to stay together and the child is then prostituted.

Before starting Operation Shield, Smith worked with hundreds of therapists as a program developer in the children’s mental health industry for 25 years. He earned his bachelor’s degree in psychology and a graduate certificate in substance abuse counseling.

Through his work, Smith has seen that one of the biggest indicators that a child might be getting involved with a predator is a dramatic, sudden change in the child’s behavior.

The best way parents can help prevent their children from being victimized is to build relationships of trust and keep communication lines open.

“I’m not a therapist,” Smith said, “but this is what we have learned. … They will stop trusting the people closest to them, they will alienate themselves from their support group. You re-establish that first and then, you start asking gently about the behavior changes you are noticing. … It’s not just girls either. It’s boys as well who fall victim.”

Though Operation Shield’s main focus is child sex trafficking, they will help adults who contact them as well.

“We know of ways to leave that life without any trace and can give you a good opportunity for a new start,” Smith said.

Operation Shield can be reached at 208-534-8303 and msgi@live.com. The address is 5130 Treyden Dr., Idaho Falls, ID 83406