PENSACOLA, Fla. (WKRG) – One in four girls and one in six boys will be somehow be victimized during their youth. Those statistics, provided to News Five by KlaasKids founder Marc Klaas are the motivation behind their countless hours and dollars poured into finding and recovering missing children. As technology advanced and developed, traffickers did the same, using new methods to victimize children. Volunteers at KlaasKids are busting these criminals, one click at a time.
The organization focuses on missing, exploited, and runaway children but victims of human trafficking have been at the forefront of their efforts recently. A new program at KlaasKids allows volunteers to not only work locally but work across the country, to recover children forced into sex work, without leaving the office.
“My daughter Polly was kidnapped at knife-point out of her own bedroom where she was hosting a slumber party on October 1st, in 1993,” Marc Klaas said while discussing why he began KlaasKids. “We searched desperately for Polly for 65 days only to find that this recidivous violent offender had kidnapped, raped and murdered her within a two hour period.”
“When Polly was kidnapped, the default answer to parents was oh she probably just ran away…,” Klaas continued. Polly’s kidnapping garnered national attention. “But what we’ve learned in the interim is that the vast majority of young girls and boys that find themselves being victimized
“But what we’ve learned in the interim is that the vast majority of young girls and boys that find themselves being victimized in human trafficking are kids that have run away.”
“The only way things would change was if people were aware of the issues. If people were outraged by the issues, if people became concerned about the safety of their own kids, and then helped us as we moved along trying to change the status quo,” Klaas concluded.
Those changes are visible here in Pensacola at the Klaas Kids offices. Technology has changed the ways children can be victimized. Brad Dennis, the local leader of KlaasKidds, and his team of volunteers added new ways they search and recover.
“We’ll do the monitoring for a variety of websites that traffickers will use to exploit their children,” Dennis said. They work with federal, state and local law enforcement to bring children home.
In the two and a half years they’ve tracked victims online, they’ve recovered more than 80 children. Dennis says many children started as runaways, but on the streets and alone, adults will force them into prostitution. This is not just a big city problem. It’s happening right here in our community.
“We are the buckle of the bible belt, these are the things that shouldn’t happen here,” Dennis said of the ways people think of local trafficking. “We are the home of the Blue Angels and the beautiful white sandy beaches, but sexual exploitation still happens here.”
Dennis says the Florida Panhandle and the Port City’s interstates bring traffickers to our communities on their way to bigger cities. They’ll stop here for a weekend, pimp out their victims, and move along.
“They stop here, they’re advertising on these websites, they’re pushing out all of these adds for a weekend then they’re back on the road again and off they go to their next destination,” Dennis said.
He believes keeping children safe from trafficking begins at home.
“Anyone that is growing up in an environment that makes them more at risk, broken homes, sexual abuse, physical abuse in the homes, drug abuse in the homes, all creates a form of that vulnerability,” Dennis said. “Predators are very good at spotting the vulnerable and they will exploit anyone if they think they can make a dollar off of it.”
When the interview was wrapping up, he shared this message:
Until we as a society realize that men are the reason that this thing exists, that we are the cause of prostitution, that we are the cause of pornography, we are what drives the constant demand, and until we as men decide to hold one another accountable for this, were never going to be able to stop this,” Dennis said.
If you suspect a child is being exploited or trafficked, you can call the National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-CHILD. You can also report it to the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888.
To learn more about fighting human trafficking, click here.
To learn more about KlaasKids, click on the link here.