National Human Trafficking Awareness Month is a time for stakeholders from government agencies to households to assess everyone’s role in preventing and detecting modern-day slavery. Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Kevin Metcalf of the 4th Judicial District of Arkansas, founder of the National Child Protection Task Force (NCPTF), shared with Homeland Security Today how jurisdictions and parents can all work together to protect children from exploitation.
Kevin has helped countless agencies identify and apprehend sexual predators and recover children. The task force is a concept he had wanted to develop for quite a while “because nobody can be an expert in everything every day, especially a technology-heavy area like this.” The task force began to form in 2018 after he began collaborating with Kevin Branzetti, Glenn Devitt, Sy Ray and others. Branzetti, Devitt, and Ray are at the top of their respective fields in the areas of legal strategy, OSINT, and the mapping and analysis of data. Since then, others have stepped up to volunteer their expertise and resources. “You could say that I head this up,” Kevin said, “but I depend heavily on those three and several others to make this work – nobody can do this alone.”
Kevin works with a wide variety of jurisdictions and says the biggest challenge comes from criminal networks that operate under the radar of most law enforcement. These networks traffic people and often assign people specific tasks such as being a driver. They profit from the misery of other people and will do anything to make money including the transportation of guns, drugs, and people. Kevin says while this is nothing new as far as the big picture goes, thinking purely jurisdictionally is hampering operations because a lot can be missed that way.
Collaboration is key
When bigger issues, including children’s lives, are at risk, Kevin says it’s important everyone lets go of ego, jurisdiction, and a desire to get credit. One of the problems he sees is a lack of willingness to share information or credit. “Agencies will often argue about operational security, which is a concern in some cases, but the result is a vast accumulation of worthless information because it is not widely shared with people who can do something with it,” he said. “All the data that is collected and all the lessons that are learned are kept isolated and closely guarded by each agency. Agencies also waste money by paying for the duplication of research or product development because of this short-term, secret-squirrel mentality where the main emphasis is ‘what can I do to further my career?’ instead of ‘how can we more effectively hunt people who profit off the misery of others?’”
“Reach out and help other agencies who don’t have the experience or resources,” Kevin urged. “Learn to expand your knowledge in these key areas. Volunteer your time to collaborate on more cases and attend more conferences and training events. Learn that it’s OK to ask for help and learn to listen.” And he practices what he preaches, admitting that although he knows a lot, he still learns something new every day, sometimes just by listening to people that he didn’t expect to teach him anything.
The National Child Protection Task Force has an innovator in Kevin. A couple of years ago, he developed a strategy for working with electronic evidence associated with mobile devices. “The process assumes there will be no device to work with, so I start off working with what is available – sometimes that is just a date, time, and location,” he said. “Once we have something to start with, the process of dynamically pushing the target identifiers through legal and OSINT options begins and more identifiers are identified, which flows back into the system until the target is identified and located.”
He’s also put together a training conference* on cybersecurity. What made him decide to do this?
“Human trafficking and child exploitation cannot be stopped in isolation; it’s going to take a crowdsourced effort to identify these predators, locate their lairs, and take the fight to them,” Kevin said. “The National Child Protection Task Force is a collaborative effort between law enforcement, private organizations, nonprofit foundations, service providers, and highly skilled individuals. We all work very well separately with isolated effort but that can only get us so far; it’s time we set aside ego and jurisdiction to come together to attack this problem.”
“The conference will not focus on device-stored forensics but on the data we may find even in the absence of a device – that data can provide powerful insight but is the obvious weak point in most investigations.”
Kevin has assembled the top people in the most relevant fields to provide training in legal strategy, the mapping and analysis of location data, OSINT, cryptocurrency basics, and dark-web basics. As he puts it, “You will not find a better or more motivated group anywhere.”
“I invite everyone with a passion for taking on sexual predators to set aside ego, jurisdiction, and biases for a week and come together in Northwest Arkansas to become part of the National Child Protection Task Force – it’s going to take all of us working together to make this happen,” he stressed.
Safety starts at home
Kevin finds that the public is often surprised by the reality of what is happening. “I try to take what I learn and transform it into something useful for parents. I think we need to start putting more effort into prevention and education, but I also think that needs to come from lessons we learn from hunting these predators,” he said. “How are they identifying their victims? How are they establishing rapport? I think the public would be surprised by the fact that, in my opinion, parents should focus a lot more on developing a deeper relationship with their children instead of focusing on the device and trying to control everything their children do – I seriously doubt that approach. If parents and children are both focusing on these devices, then nobody is focusing on the relationship right there in front of them.”
Indeed, Kevin’s concept of the National Child Protection Task Force is much bigger than just law enforcement. “We all share responsibility to make society a better place for everyone, especially our most vulnerable members,” he said. “We should be looking at this with the concept of before, during, and after phases instead of the current fragmented, egocentric, and jurisdictional model where career advancement is the key factor.”
“Before” refers to the prevention side primarily focused on parents, teachers, and community leaders; “during” is where law enforcement and other nonprofits come with a focus on hunting active predators; and “after” refers to the aftermath of victim recovery and family support where victim services is the emphasis. Kevin says each phase should interact and share appropriate information with the other so that all can benefit and improve.
What message does Kevin have for parents who may be reading this about how they can better identify or build rapport with their kids?
“Kids are a melting pot of hormones, social anxiety and awkwardness, and the imposter syndrome. They can’t believe their lives aren’t as great as their friends tell them their lives are and they certainly aren’t as wonderful as all those people they ‘know’ on Instagram,” he said.
“It is confusing to try to figure out ‘what would a “good” parent do?’ I’m sure it wasn’t easy for any generation to be parents but modern technology creates new challenges for parents,” Kevin noted. “What we generally tell parents about cell phones and social media is that they need to control everything their kids do on all devices and we should know what they are doing online. This creates an artificial sense of fear and urgency in a lot of parents, especially those that are not very familiar with technology or online accounts. Some parents add spy apps to their children’s cell phones or regularly look through their messages. There is no thought of children deserving trust and privacy, only that parents have to control everything, which is an exercise in futility because it is never going to happen. In order to achieve that, parents would have to constantly monitor their children and not allow them to go to school, friends’ houses, or even the library because their kids could easily access computers or just borrow a friend’s cell phone.”
“This is a balancing act of building a relationship using control and trust – as one increases, the other decreases. Personally, I think we should treat this issue the same way we teach children to drive. We educate our children and talk openly with them about driving such as the rules of the road, situational awareness, and our own personal tips. We start with small steps and build over time as our children get learners permits and actually start off driving with us in the car. We start them off in parking lots or areas with little traffic and gradually increase the levels of difficulty as we trust their abilities. When they’ve had enough practice, we have to trust them enough to let them drive by themselves once they reach the legal age and have gained our trust. By the time they are 18 and ready to move into young adulthood, they should have a fairly good level of awareness and skill.”
Kevin believes we should educate our children at age-appropriate levels about technology and the dangers that go along with it just like we do with driving. Instead of talking about planning ahead and estimating braking distance, we should talk about planning ahead on topics like why releasing personally identifying information is dangerous and how most people wait until they are in a dangerous or damaging situation before they even realize the danger, and then it’s too late. Or about how there is a false sense of security and familiarity with people they are “friends” with online but have never seen in the real world.
“We need to talk to our kids openly about sex at age-appropriate levels and we need to listen to what they have to say – and I don’t mean listening so you’ll know how to tell them why they’re wrong,” he said. “If you can’t talk to your kids openly about sex, someone else will. Parents who are uncomfortable with that should seek out the help of a friend or professional because it is that important.”
Kevin notes five key stages for parents wanting to build a better rapport with their kids:
- Stop focusing on the device, yours and your child’s. Set them aside and share at least one meal each week together with no digital distractions.
- Schedule at least one parent/child date each month. It doesn’t have to be anything more than watching a movie together at home.
- Listen actively, without judgment. This one was particularly hard for me since I want to impose my will on everything around me and fix things. I’m still working on it, but it pays off over time!
- Talk openly with your child about sex and make sure they can come to you about any topic. A child should have a parent they can come up to and say, “I am thinking about having sex, what should I do?” If your child wouldn’t feel comfortable talking to you about that or vice versa, there’s a lot you’re not going to know about or understand.
- Once your kids have earned your trust, give them a reason to earn more. Stop trying to spy on them and certainly don’t violate the trust they have earned with some lame excuse about having to check their messages.