Passions ran high and opinions flowed freely at an informal public meeting Wednesday to discuss concerns about sex trafficking on the Big Island.
The gathering, which was held outside of the new Umeke’s location on Pawai Place in Kailua-Kona, drew well over 100 people and featured several speakers including politicians, human trafficking specialists, and community members.
“We should feel safe,” said Kona Councilwoman Rebecca Villegas. “We should be able to walk within our community without being afraid for the safety and the well being of our young people.”
Human trafficking and missing children, both longstanding and serious issues across Hawai‘i, have picked up momentum after catching the wind of extended community interest in recent weeks. Puna Councilman Matt Kaneali‘i-Kleinfelder helped spotlight the concerns when he called on Hawai‘i County Police to testify on the matters at a Council meeting held on June 16.
More thorough publicizing of missing and runaway children by the police department, as well as the presence of Carbon Nation, an alleged cult, on the Big Island in the weeks leading up to the meeting, fanned flames around the issue of trafficking. Since that time, tales of attempted abduction have abounded on social media, as have rumors and misinformation.
HPD Assistant Chief Robert Wagner confirmed that missing children and runaway reports are down slightly in 2020 from last year, but said the attention around the issues has led to uncommon reports being filed with police over the last several weeks.
“Normally, we don’t get calls of people saying someone was trying to abduct (a person). That’s a very unusual call, and it seems to be more common lately,” he said.
Not every word by uttered by every speaker Wednesday evening in Umeke’s parking lot could be verified as true or classified as fact rather than opinion, but a substantial amount of quality information on trafficking prevention and grassroots proactivity emerged from the gathering.
Zahava Zaidoff, a mental health professional and a drug/alcohol counselor who lives in South Kona, said that more than 90% of children trafficked aren’t abducted in the way people have recently described on social media. They are instead “groomed” over a period of several months by people known either to them or their families, if not by someone within their family units.
She offered a general grooming example of a high school-aged girl who takes a public bus home every day. A man in his early 20s approaches the girl at the bus stop and tries to start up a conversation. She ignores him at first but over time, he becomes a familiar face and they graduate to speaking terms.
Eventually, he learns information about her, cultivates things in common like a love of art, asks her about her life, and shows genuine interest in her while they wait for the bus together several times per week. She begins to see him as a friend or even a protector. She tells her parents about him and they forbid her from seeing him, but that may only serve to alienate her from her family and push her toward her would-be abductor.
He follows her on Instagram. He offers her a ticket to the mainland to check out one of his friend’s art galleries. She lies to her parents and accepts the invitation. And after boarding a plane to a mainland city, she is never seen again.
“Why would predators put in that kind of effort?” Zaidoff posed to the crowd Wednesday. “Drugs and alcohol run out. Do you know what doesn’t run out? The body.”
“We have to go against what we think is the right thing to do, which is (to say) ‘Hell no!’” she continued. “(We need to) get involved.”
Education and prevention are the best ways to keep the community safe, Zaidoff added, and that starts with listening. She said the first thing she’d do if her teenage daughter was talking frequently about an adult man would be to invite him over for dinner.
Getting involved is beneficial for communication and discourages trafficking, Zaidoff said. Listening isn’t limited only to parents, either.
Studies were cited Wednesday that found children who have one adult outside the home who they believe cares about them and one activity outside the home that matters to them are far less likely to be trafficked and have a much higher success rate in later life.
Zaidoff encouraged teachers, coaches, and people from community groups like the Aloha Theater to engage with the kids they help take care of.
“If they are willing to talk, you need to be ready to listen,” she said.
Another suggestion made by a speaker Wednesday involved creating a pickup password for each individual child, then teaching that child never to get into a vehicle with anyone who doesn’t know the password, even if that person is a family member or a family friend.
Yet another suggestion involved teaching children martial arts and self-defense tactics to help protect themselves if they feel threatened and no immediate help is available.
Developing the narrative
Jessica Tuifua, a mother to five children including two teenage girls, attended Wednesday’s meeting and said she found value in it.
Two years ago, she was walking in Sack & Save with her then two-year-old son, when a man approached her and repeatedly asked if the child was hers, as well as if he could hold the child. She added that she’s had many friends who were molested growing up, if not specifically trafficked, which is partly why she wanted to come to Umeke’s and show support.
However, Tuifua also gave voice to the concern that the narrative around a problem like sex trafficking can get out of control, with rumors like mafia-led sex trafficking syndicates operating in an organized, sophisticated fashion across widespread areas of the islands.
“Everyone is seeing the boogeyman right now,” she said. “The devil doesn’t come to you with his horns and pitchfork (and make it obvious). I think the mob mentality … could do more damage.”
“But I agree with a lot of what they’re saying tonight about the runaways and (other topics),” Tuifua said. “It starts at home. Kids need to be comfortable enough to come and talk to you.”
Involving the police
The mix of anger and fear surrounding missing keiki and human trafficking led to some heated back-and-forth exchanges between speakers and the crowd Wednesday night, as well as between multiple parties within the audience.
While the tense interactions were quickly diffused, the palpable emotion throughout the crowd prompted several speakers to note that vigilante justice is not the way. However, that doesn’t mean the concepts of safety in numbers and protecting one another ought to be dismissed.
“We’ve all got each other’s backs,” said Zachary Keale, a community member in attendance at the meeting. “That’s how I was raised. You see a wahine struggling, some guy bothering a wahine, you better stand up.”
Keale, along with several others, lamented the fact that Hawai‘i Island Police did not attend Wednesday’s gathering.
Wagner said police did not attend because they were not invited. The department caught wind of the meeting and reached out to Umeke’s owner Nakoa Pabre to ask if they should be in attendance. Wagner said Pabre told the officer who reached out that because it was a first-time, informal community gathering, the police may not be expressly needed.
“We don’t invite ourselves to meetings,” Wagner said. “And some people like meetings without cops there.”
The fact that multiple candidates running for public office in 2020 spoke at Wednesday’s gathering could have complicated police attendance, Wagner added, as HPD shies away from even seeming to support one candidate over another for any office.
But a lack of attendance Wednesday doesn’t mean the police aren’t taking missing person reports as seriously as ever before, he continued. HPD often dedicates more resources to a report of a potential abduction or missing person than to other, lower-level crimes.
By the numbers
Wagner said to understand the issues, it’s important to put statistics floating around media reports in context. Roughly 150 children have been reported as missing in 2020. Most of them are runaways, and most keiki who run away once tend to do it again, meaning multiple children have multiple missing reports filed for them inside of a calendar year, Wagner explained.
A better way to examine the extent of the issue is to look at active runaways the same way active COVID-19 cases are examined against the overall number of cases reported. While there have been more than 150 missing reports filed, most kids are found, meaning there might only be a handful of active missing person cases at any one time.
“We always will have 10 or 20 active runaway kids,” Wagner said. “I don’t see it going away because kids will always run away.”
Melody Stone, the founder of the Hawai‘i Coalition Against Human Trafficking, said education needs to begin at home and also take place in the classroom.
She relayed information to the crowd about thousands of dollars in research-based education material for parents and teachers, which can be accessed for free at www.freewaync.org.
The information includes resources for professional training of therapists and healthcare providers, as well as awareness training for youth and the general public.