The Rescuers

While I was working on the “Dark Files” TV show, I met Michael Bourke, a psychologist with the U.S. Marshal’s service. The show involved wild and unsubstantiated claims of child abductions, and the conversation naturally drifted toward actual cases of abduction. Some 19 months later, I’ve got a story in print in the Washington Post that sprang straight from that conversation.

The Rescuers” is a story about an anti-child trafficking initiative, which teaches patrol cops to recognize children in distress. To date, the program has been taught to less than 10,000 police, primarily in Texas and Arizona, and has led to hundreds of what they call “child rescues.” Many of the kids were victims of sex trafficking, but they have also recovered children who were lured out by adults they met online, kidnapped by custodial parents or simply abused. The program has also led to the arrest of multiple child pornographers.

To most reporters, myself included, stories are generally considered most worthwhile when someone powerful doesn’t want you to print them. Getting “bad guys,” wherever they are located, is—or at least should be—a shared motivation for police and journalists alike, though of course that often leads to conflict between the two professions. This story doesn’t exactly fit that mold: Primarily, the piece revolves around the actions of police—a Texas State Department of Public Safety Police Captain named Derek Prestridge, and his colleagues there; a Georgia cop, Deputy Patrick Paquette; and the psychologist, Bourke.

Behind these white hats, however, looms the specter of real bad guys—child pornographers, abusers, and human traffickers. I’m pretty sure that they didn’t want this story in print.

The program, dubbed “Interdiction for the Protection of Children,” takes its cue from similar training designed to help police recognize drug traffickers. This, for me, was a bit fraught. The “war on drugs” has largely been a spectacular failure—an attempt to treat drug addiction, a medical problem, as a criminal matter. But the similarity between this program and drug interdiction is at once incredibly powerful and terribly small.

For decades now, police have understood many dozens if not hundreds of “tells” for drug trafficking that they can pick up in the course of a typical highway stop. One of my favorites, which I learned writing this story, was that the presence of a tire jack among the front or back passenger seats of an otherwise “nice” vehicle. The idea is simple: Few would want to dirty the inside of a vehicle with a tire jack. But drug traffickers might, and had often been observed doing so, because they value quick access to a hidden compartment in the wheel well. The presence of any one indicator is likely not enough for an officer to begin a vehicle search, but something like that jack could put them on alert to look for more indicators, ask the motorist additional questions and perhaps wind up making a drug seizure and arrest.

Prestridge, the Texas DPS captain, took this idea from drug policing—what can cops readily see in the normal course of a 7 minute traffic stop?—and used it as inspiration: Shouldn’t there be a similar series of clues, he figured, that would help police recognize kids in distress? But the similarity ends there: The IPC program is not focused on policing drugs, or even prostitution, though sex trafficking is one of its core missions; it is about recognizing exploited, abused and endangered children.

I wondered what kind of trouble might come from misunderstandings. One of the most immediate clues an officer might lock on is a car occupied by people unrelated by blood and of disparate ages. This struck me then (and now) as a sensitive subject—a point where police might end up targeting mixed race couples, adoptive families or simply friends, co-workers or neighbors of varying ethnicities. But as I researched the mechanics of a typical traffic stop, the opportunity to “investigate” these situations seemed both organic and benign.

A patrol officer might ask for a child’s name, for instance, and run that name through the FBI’s National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database, to determine if they have been reported missing. The results shoot back in the officer’s on-board computer almost immediately, and the family is on their way. As Prestridge told me at the time, kids and adults in safe and legal relationships are revealed as such very quickly, with little investigation at all. And as both he and Bourke explained, the IPC program trains police to look for a “confluence of indicators”—a collection of signs that a child is in trouble, not just any one thing. In general terms, kids in safe situations just don’t look like kids who aren’t—not when police know exactly what details might be most important.

The more I looked, in fact, the stronger the Texas DPS’s program appeared. And as the publication date approached, I felt particularly good about this story. To this point, the Interdiction for the Protection of Children program had received scant public attention, but people need to be aware this training exists to determine if it should become standard, nationwide. I’ve shared very little of the article here. The story itself revolves around Prestridge’s journey, specific rescue stories and the decision Texas DPS made to try and provide the training to police agencies outside their own jurisdiction. That last bit raises a pressing question: How does a state agency promote and provide a unique and intensive program on a federal level?

Police who hear about the program tend to want it for themselves. In the days since “The Rescuers” was first posted online, in fact, Texas DPS started receiving calls and emails from multiple outside police agencies around the country to inquire about receiving this training for their own patrol cops. I don’t have a figure on that yet, but I’m sure there will be more to write later.