TEMPLE HILLS – Sex trafficking and child safety are major issues Sylvester Jones, Sr. sees in the country and he wants to make sure his community is informed and ready to take action.
On Jan. 23, Jones held a public safety town hall about human and sex trafficking at Corkran Memorial United Methodist Church in Temple Hills as part of his campaign for Prince George’s County Sheriff. His team, Team Jones for Sherriff, brought together Jones, Executive Director for the Prince George’s County Human Relations Commission D. Michael Lyles, retired Chief of International Operations Drug Enforcement Administration Mike Vigil and anti-sex trafficking nonprofit founder Rev. Dr. Vanetta R. Rather for a panel on the topic.
Jones served nearly 27 years in the military, working for the United States Marshals Service and used that experience to author the book, “Hunting Criminals to Hiding Them: My Journey to and with the United States Marshals Service.” Jones noted that human trafficking and sex trafficking often go together in most cases.
“When individuals are willing to buy commercial sex, they create a market and make it profitable for traffickers to sexually exploit children and adults,” according to the National Human Trafficking Hotline. In Maryland, 3,349 human trafficking calls were made to the hotline in 2017. Forty-seven trafficking tips were reported.
Jones, who described himself as someone who has always been a strong advocate for child safety and security, said some individuals are trafficked for body parts or organs, which can be sold for large sums of money. However, Jones thinks that the majority of traffickers prey on youth.
“They grab them. They (younger people) come up missing, and they use them in illegal sex acts,” Jones said. “In understanding the (Washington, D.C area) and some of these cases we have children missing, I think it is something we have to raise awareness of, and it just happened to be that January is Human Trafficking Awareness Month.”
Recent debates about missing children in the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia have evolved because many juveniles are classified as runaways.
In these missing person cases, they do not receive Amber Alerts, although information about missing children can also be incorrectly reported. Jones pointed out that mental health issues, family challenges, and other matters can drive youth to “hang out” or turn up missing. He added that parents should think about early and late-night supervision, even when students may engage in routine activities like walking to and from school or other familiar locations.
Jones also said the issue of children who disappear, and who are not seen or heard from again, are both public safety and family issues.
“I know as a parent myself that’s heartbreaking, but having the law enforcement background I have, I would like to think that I could bring like minds together and raise awareness to these issues and maybe contribute somehow to trying to eliminate, or at least reduce this issue, because it’s a public safety and it’s a family issue," Jones said.
No one wants to have a child go missing not to be seen or heard from again. That is a tragic situation. I strongly believe in, even for adults, a buddy system. You want to be as safe as you can. Everyone.”
Rather, the founder of My Sister My Seed, Inc., was one of four panelists who shared her expertise with the public during Jones’s Human/Sex Trafficking Town Hall Forum.
My Sister My Seed is a nonprofit Rather started to empower women and girls, and to combat sex trafficking. The organization provides prevention and awareness training on sex trafficking. Restorative programs are offered to girls who have already been victimized by sex trafficking. Girls who are most vulnerable at the age of 12 and 14 years old, Rather said, though all girls are at risk. The Prince George’s County resident pointed out that possible sex trafficking trend could be that the girls who are targeted are at an even younger age group.
Rather said one solution to reducing sex trafficking crimes, which would give girls a frontline defense against trafficking, is having education and awareness training presented at elementary, middle, and high schools.
The sensitive nature of the topic might drum up some resistance from school admonition, and that matter was discussed during the community forum. However, those in attendance seemed to agree with the panelists that it was necessary for schools to educate students about the dangers of sex trafficking.
“Sex Trafficking is extremely important to discuss because it impacts vulnerable girls,” Rather said. "Sex Trafficking is modern-day slavery built on the backs of teens and preteens to the tune of $9 billion annually.”
These are real lives of young girls, she emphasized, who are forced to comply with sexual acts they do not want to engage in.
“If the issue of sex trafficking is not discussed, and if the community is not made aware, and (community members do not) become outraged that this heinous crime is being committed against the most vulnerable in our community, these girls will remain at risk and become enslaved by those looking to exploit them for financial gain,” she said. “We have to aggressively go after those who buy and sell girls and make it an offense that is severely punishable in our justice system.”