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Protecting ’our most vulnerable’ population

Staff Writer
Brownwood Bulletin
Early Police Chief David Mercer speaks to the media at a press conference at the Early City Hall. Also pictured are Brown County Chief Sheriff's Deputy James Stroope, Brownwood Police Chied Ed Kading and Crystal Wyatt, outreach advocate for the Heart of Texas Children's Advocacy Center.

EARLY — Be vigilant with your children and teens. And speak up if something doesn’t look right.

That was the message as three law enforcement officials and a representative of the Heart of Texas Children’s Advocacy Center spoke to the media several days after the attempted kidnapping of a child earlier this month at an Early business.

Early Police Chief David Mercer, Brownwood Police Chief Ed Kading, Brown County Chief Sheriff’s Deputy James Stroope and children’s advocacy center outreach coordinator Crystal Wyatt gave safety tips on topics including child trafficking and social media.

An Early man remains jailed in connection with the Sept. 15 incident at the Hobby Lobby store.

“Many people have been very concerned since that happened,”Mercer said at the Early City Hall press conference.

“Local parents and families have been very edgy about the safety of kids in our cities and county. Cases like these are not common here, but they do happen and it’s very upsetting to the whole community, especially if one of our kids of the community is taken.”

Stroope said sheriff’s officials have worked with other agencies in investigating child trafficking cases.

Referring to social media, Stroope said, “that seems to be the hot topic of safety as far as our children go, with everything going on from school, with computers being issued at such a young age, and young children having cellular devices.

“As parents, we need to be diligent about checking our children’s devices. Regardless of what they believe, that device is yours. You’re solely responsible for that child and it’s our responsibility as parents to ensure that our children aren’t doing something that they shouldn’t be doing, being misguided by other figures in their life.”

Stroope said parents should check their children’s online use and look for the apps their children are using.

“There are so many of them out there that I can’t even begin to tell you which ones that you need to be looking for,” Stroope said.

Stroope mentioned a few of the apps including MeetMe, Kik and Snapchat.

Kading said law enforcement officials have been involved in “too many of these investigations over the years in our careers. Something that people have asked me — ’who am I looking for? Who is a human trafficker?’

“And unfortunately it can be anyone. There is no consistent description that I can tell you to watch out for. Fortunately you can do your research. You can get online and research what these apps are.”

Kading said it’s “amazing and scary” how many predators are online.

“The dark web is a whole different animal, where you can do basically any kind of human trafficking, any kind of crime you could ever imagine,” Kading said.

“Unfortunately there are people who will exploit our most vulnerable population, which is our children or others in our community that cannot protect themselves.”

Human trafficking and human smuggling aren’t the same thing, Kading said.

“Trafficking does not require any movement,” Kading said. “A child can be trafficked out of their own home. So that’s obviously very hard to detect if we’re not willing to speak to each other and get involved in each other’s lives any more.

“Human trafficking occurs in every state and communities of every single size.”

Kading said it’s time to “have some of these hard conversations and talk about the safety of our children and the safety of our vulnerable population. If you see something, if you know something, you’ve got to say something.”

Sometimes people are reluctant to report a suspicion because they don’t want to wrongly accuse someone, Kading said.

“You’re not accusing,” Kading said. “You’re reporting something that doesn’t look right to law enforcement, to the child advocacy center. We don’t go out and tell people who told us. We’re investigating something that’s alarming to someone in the community.”

Because of concerns over coronavirus, Kading said, people “don’t want to even look at each other. We’ve been told to stay away. We are so much keeping to ourselves and not wanting to offend someone or end up on Facebook.

“It’s far past due from the time when we say ‘that’s not my business.’ It is our business. These are our kids. If you see something you’ve got to say something.”

Mercer added, “it’s our job to put the evidence together.”

Wyatt reiterated the need for vigilance. “Phones are something that we have in our hand all the time,” Wyatt said. “They can be a distraction a lot of the time. We’re walking through the store, we’re not watching what’s happening. We need to put those phones down and really pay attention.

“If you do find yourself in a situation like what we had happen, we want to make sure that you get yourself and your children to a safe location, get a good description, take notes.”

Children should be taught “not to just trust easily,” Wyatt said. “Just because they meet someone online, it doesn’t make them their friend. You need to teach your children, teens, anyone — even yourself — if someone is promising you something and it’s too good to be true, it probably is.”

Wyatt suggested that parents collect their children’s devices at bedtime. “You can get a basket,” Wyatt said. You’re a parent. Take them up, make yourself well aware of you your kids are talking to, what they’re doing online, what apps they have.

“This is never going to be an invasion of their privacy. This is your job as a parent to keep them safe.”

Wyatt concluded by saying, “just always trust your instincts. If you have a bad feeling about something, it’s always it’s better to a be safe than sorry.

“A lot of these kids can’t speak for themselves, and they’re just waiting for that one person to say something so that they can finally answer the question, ‘are you okay?’”