Trafficked and Neglected: Finding San Antonio’s Lost Children

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(From left) Special Investigators Jim Backfisch, Owen Hinkle, and Chuck Paul with their boss, Ray Romo. Photo by Rachel Chaney.

(From left) Special Investigators Jim Backfisch, Owen Hinkle, and Chuck Paul with their boss, Ray Romo. Photo by Rachel Chaney.

Special Investigators James “Jim” Backfisch, Owen Hinkle, and Charles “Chuck” Paul represent a “dream team” of sorts. They are members of a special investigation unit of the Texas Department of Family & Protective Services. CPS Special Investigations Program Director Ray Romo assembled this team in 2013 to serve as a bridge between the Department of Family and Protective Services and law enforcement, in cases involving missing foster youth. Simply stated, any time a child goes missing from our foster system, these three men search high and low for them.

After spending time with this dream team, I can say that if my own child ever went missing, I would want these guys on the case.

Sometimes, these kids are running from a dangerous situation characterized by abuse and neglect. Sometimes, these kids are running from a safe environment but are targeted because of their vulnerability. Foster children who run away are in greater danger of being exploited. This team of investigators sees the worst predators in our city: sex traffickers that lurk outside shelters and hospitals that care for this vulnerable group of kids. Some watch and wait inside local malls during the day, scanning crowds for insecure children. Many use the Internet.

Backfisch, Hinkle, and Paul are the “big three” of finding missing kids in San Antonio. They spend their time knocking on doors, asking questions, surfing the Internet, working on leads over the phone, talking to kids, going to court, and engaging in surveillance.

They are reluctant to talk about themselves, but each member of the team is eager to highlight the other person’s character and hard work. Backfisch is the “blue tick hound” of the group.

“Once he gets the scent on something, he doesn’t stop. He finds his way around all the obstacles. He’s an out-of-the-box thinker,” Paul said.

Hinkle is a skilled interviewer.

“(He) can talk a nun out of their habit,” Backfisch said.

“(Hinkle) is a master interviewer – like (someone who does) Jedi mind tricks and stuff,” Paul said, adding on a more serious note that, “I’m surprised his heart fits in his chest. He takes phone calls all day and all night” from runaway kids.

Paul is the linchpin of the group. He has a wealth of knowledge about policy and has helpful connections with other law enforcement agencies and nonprofits. He is known for his tenacity, follow-through, and preparedness. He does what he says he is going to do. Missing Person Agent Melissa Martinez who has worked with Paul for eight years refers to him as “Super Chuck.”

“Chuck can go anywhere and do anything,” Martinez said. “Chuck is the type of guy who won’t take, ‘We can’t do it’ for an answer. He will stay there until he gets the kid. He will go sit at a house (where he suspects a missing child is). He will literally sit there and sit there until he gets the answers. The kids that get assigned to him make it. Chuck gives them that start—at least to the point that the system starts.  (The kids) know him. It may take us a little while but we find them every single time.”

Paul spends a lot of time on his computer researching. His bracelet reads, "Make Right What's Wrong." Photo by Rachel Chaney.

Rachel Chaney for the Rivard Report

Paul spends a lot of time on his computer researching. His bracelet reads, “Make Right What’s Wrong.” Photo by Rachel Chaney.

The task that these men have been entrusted with is daunting. In 2014, SAPD received 3,515 reports of missing children. SAPD cleared 3,270 missing youth reports in 2014 by recovery, location, or legal dismissal, according to SAPD Youth Services’ Missing Person Unit tracking database.

When predators see an unaccompanied child, they often lure him or her with the promise of food, shelter, friendship, or drugs. They spend hours on the Internet, forming relationship with young people. Most often, traffickers establish a romantic relationship with a child by pretending to be a stable, empathetic, and loving partner.

As recently as 2014 in San Antonio, children caught engaging in what appeared to be prostitution were often treated as criminals. They were charged with crimes and incarcerated. Backfisch, Hinkle, and Paul are pioneers, setting a new, innovative standard for caring for our lost children that follows four main tenants:

Develop personal relationships with runaway kids.

When kids run away multiple times, they try to get reassigned to the same child to increase the level of trust and continuity. Paul, Hinkle, and Backfish “have the respect of the kids,” Romo said.

One runaway kid voluntarily turned himself in when he discovered that Hinkle had been reassigned to his case. Runaways will sometimes ask for help directly from one of these men when they are in trouble.

“All three of us have compassion,” Hinkle adds.

You never hear Hinkle use words like “runaway” or “victim.” Instead, he repeatedly uses the phrase, “our kids,” communicating both his affection for them and a sense of responsibility.

Work within a framework of mutual respect and collaboration.

Backfish, Hinkle, and Paul bounce ideas off of each other. They go to lunch together to hash things out and decompress. Hinkle appreciates how his boss, Romo, always gives them the opportunity to be more innovative. He encourages them to go to training whenever possible and addresses issues right away.

“He is always in our corner,” Hinkle said. “He gives us the latitude of make our own decisions.”

Romo is their advocate and represents their concerns to the “higher-ups.” These guys recognize that they don’t work in isolation. They rely on countless police investigators, social service workers, health care workers, caseworkers at CPS, law enforcement officers, observant members of the community, and non-profits to assist them in their work. They appreciate these people and recognize that they are dependent on them, in part, for their success.

Owen Hinkle and Chuck Paul develop leads to try to find a girl who ran away from a residential treatment facility. Photo by Rachel Chaney.

Owen Hinkle and Chuck Paul develop leads to try to find a girl who ran away from a residential treatment facility. Photo by Rachel Chaney.

Physically work inside of police departments.

Surprisingly, according to Paul, no other special investigative units are housed in police stations in the state of Texas. When they are developing leads for missing persons from the foster system, they work upstairs in the Public Safety Headquarters building with Youth Services. When they are working on cases of human trafficking, they travel downstairs to work side by side with the Special Victims Unit. On both floors, they are able to work directly with other people in different departments who share some overlapping responsibilities.

Develop new and creative ways to find children and investigate cases.

The four of them developed policies and procedures based on what they found worked best in actual field work. Romo developed a Resource Guide and Interview Screening Questions Guide with their input. The resource guide delineates the responsibilities of both the CPS caseworker and the special investigator so that nothing slips through the cracks and information is reported in a timely way to other applicable agencies. It also provides information on how to screen for human trafficking and gives specific questions to ask a recovered child to determine why he or she left originally and what happened while he or she was missing.

The State Office named their program the “The Gold Standard” and used their guide to develop the Official Texas DFPS Missing Children Resource Guide.

Chuck Paul (in front) collaborates with a youth service agent from the police department (in back) to try to find a missing child. Photo by Rachel Chaney. Chuck Paul (right) collaborates with a youth service agent from the police department to try to find a missing child. Photo by Rachel Chaney.

Chuck Paul (in front) collaborates with a youth service agent from the police department (in back) to try to find a missing child. Photo by Rachel Chaney.

Of course, the recognition from the State is a nice accolade, but these guys are much more motivated by finding individual kids. These are kids who have been mistreated and forgotten by some. To Romo, Hinkle, Paul, and Backfisch, these are kids who could easily be their very own children. They are street-smart, resilient, thoughtful, and deserve dignity and a safe place to flourish.

In order to flourish, recovered children need a place to begin to heal physically and emotionally from the trauma that they have experienced while they were gone. Victims of sex trafficking are not always physically confined. However, they are always emotionally imprisoned. The trafficker has worked systematically to isolate them and to break their spirit. These kids form a trauma bond with their controller or trafficker which is analogous to the bond that forms in a domestic violence situation.

“Trauma bonding happens when someone uses fear, sexual feelings … and excitement to entrap someone else. It is a result of continuing cycles of abuse where alternating reward and mistreatment form an emotional bond that is not easy to break,” according to The International Institute of for Trauma & Addiction Professionals.

In order to cement an emotional bond with a child, traffickers will offer certain rewards like gifts, drugs, dinner dates, clothing, shopping sprees, manicures, contact with family members, or payment of a family member’s bill. Traffickers will also create a sense of total dependence and isolation by punishing their victims. They will beat them; rape them; take away their basic essentials of food, clothing, and shelter; lock them up; or beat anyone that their victims care about.

A poster reminds the officers of SAPD who find missing children to watch carefully for signs of human trafficking. Photo by Rachel Chaney.

Rachel Chaney for the Rivard Report

A poster reminds the officers of SAPD who find missing children to watch carefully for signs of human trafficking. Photo by Rachel Chaney.

Because of this trauma bond, these rescued kids are susceptible to returning back to the very person who has preyed upon them. It is common for runaways to run away repeatedly. They struggle to return to the life they lived before they were trafficked because most home or school situations don’t know how to respond to such unspeakable suffering. Or sometimes, they have been mistreated since they were very young and have never had a safe place to go. Frequently, they are victims of crime having witnessed violence and even murder. They aren’t safe walking the streets – especially when their trafficker gets word that they are talking to law enforcement agents. They feel lonely and isolated because of feelings of shame. They are slow to cry out for help and share their stories because of paralyzing fear and mistrust.

In response to this complex challenge in the fall of 2014, graduate architectural students at UTSA designed The Alamo Youth Center for At Risk Youth, a proposed 90-day residential facility to meet the needs of runaway youth. This project represents a “paradigm shift in the protection and treatment of our youth,” Paul said.

The center was part of a design challenge in partnership with Alamo Area Coalition Against Trafficking comprised of federal, state, county and city law enforcement and governmental agencies and area nonprofit organizations including San Antonio Police DepartmentBexar County District Attorney’s Office – Human Trafficking Division, and Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.

Front entry rendering of the proposed Alamo Youth Center for At Risk Youth. UTSA College of Architecture, Construction and Planning.

Front entry rendering of the proposed Alamo Youth Center for At Risk Youth. UTSA College of Architecture, Construction and Planning.

The facility for at-risk youth would be a one-stop shop of sorts, a multidisciplinary center where government agencies and nonprofit groups would work together to care for youth victims holistically. The center would be open 24 hours, welcoming the public and recovered children any time of day or night through a secured lobby. Law enforcement and Child Protective Services would have a constant presence there. The judges in the juvenile justice system could hold court hearings on site. A medical clinic would provide physical exams and more detailed, evidence-gathering exams. Nonprofits who are already doing excellent work serving this population would be invited to meet directly with the kids to counsel them and connect them with the resources that they need to thrive. Recovered kids could find something to wear, something to eat, and a clean and safe place to sleep. Self-paced, guided learning would help reduce the learning gap so that these kids could return to school and get important job skills.

It will take political willpower and substantial funding to make the facility a reality.

“Right now we are in the process of recruiting board members for the (nonprofit) Youth Center Project, once that is done we will partner with Arrow Child & Family Ministries on the capital campaign,” Paul said. “Arrow is the organization which developed, built, and runs Freedom Place, which is the only long term, non-detention, treatment facility for trafficking victims in Texas.”

Layout of the first floor of the proposed Alamo Youth Center. UTSA College of Architecture, Construction and Planning.

Layout of the first floor of the proposed Alamo Youth Center. UTSA College of Architecture, Construction and Planning.

Exterior views of the proposed Alamo Youth Center. UTSA College of Architecture, Construction and Planning.

Exterior views of the proposed Alamo Youth Center. UTSA College of Architecture, Construction and Planning.

Paul thinks into the future and imagines this center’s impact. He likens it to a beachhead. A beachhead is “a defended position on a beach taken from the enemy by landing forces, from which an attack can be launched.”

The word picture conjures up images of the Allied forces invading German-occupied France on D-Day. He sees a larger battle against darkness in our community.

“The Alamo Youth Center Program can be the beachhead on which we as a community establish our foothold to strike back at the darkness,” he said. “A program that can be replicated throughout Texas and the Nation, the Alamo Youth Center will decriminalize treatment of children who have been victimized by traffickers. Like modern medical trauma centers, it will combine multiple disciplines (social, therapeutic, spiritual, and environmental) for a holistic approach in treating our youth victims.”

He then calls all of us to action and enlists our help.

“It is my hope that the community will support this project by reaching out to their community, city, county, state, and national leaders to call them to action in making the Alamo Area Youth Center become a reality. This project will need strong community support, leaders willing to speak out and support the project, and yes, eventually financial support. Most of all, this project needs prayers. Prayers that the right leaders will be called by God to the board. Prayers that any opposition will be overwhelmed by the zeal of the community. Because this project is for our children, and will combat a social disease which has infected our whole community.”

 

 *Top image: (From left) Special Investigators Jim Backfisch, Owen Hinkle, and Chuck Paul with their boss, Ray Romo. Photo by Rachel Chaney. 

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4 thoughts on “Trafficked and Neglected: Finding San Antonio’s Lost Children

  1. Thank you for all you do! Bringing a face to the reality that this is real and happening to our fostar kids in Texas. Texas based National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, highlighting this issue in Texas, statewide trainings.

    Dr Dorsett

  2. Fascinating foursome– but what a tragedy that SAPD has never had such a skilled and dedicated team searching for the still-missing “Baby Gabriel” Johnson, the eight-month-old Arizona boy who disappeared in San Antonio in 12/09 and has yet to be found?! #whatreallyhappenedtobabygabriel

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