DETROIT – Two mothers are speaking about their experiences after admitting they missed signs that their daughters were being pulled into the world of human trafficking.
Both of their daughters were groomed and pulled into trafficking, and one of them didn't survive. The women hope their stories will help other parents spot red flags that their children could be targeted.
"She's a goofball," Janiece Charles said. "She had a crazy sense of humor. She loved her music. She loved to journal."
Charles' youngest daughter, Natalie, loved her family and wanted to be a teacher. But she was killed in 2016 at the age of 21.
Her murder is still unsolved, but her mother believes Natalie was the victim of sex trafficking.
Charles said her daughter's boyfriend started grooming her when she was 15 years old.
"He gained her trust and then turned her over to her traffickers," Charles said.
Looking back, Charles said she did notice red flags but thought they were part of growing up. Natalie was rebellious, and her mother received calls that she was skipping school.
"You don't know what's going on and you're just trying to keep up with that behavior," Charles said. "We had her in counseling. We had her hospitalized. 'What is going on?'"
Natalie left home, and her mother tracked her through online sex ads. Charles said she tried several times to bring her daughter home, but Natalie was too scared to leave.
"The fear," Charles said. "The trauma bonds. The fear they are going to kill her family."
Kelly Litvak has a similar story, but her child survived. Her daughter was also pursued by someone she knew in high school.
"I did not know what human trafficking was at all," Litvak said. "I started looking for resources for parents online, and I was so surprised that I didn't find anything."
She set out to change that by starting Childproof America in Houston.
"It is in place to very specifically, No. 1, let parents understand what this issue looks like, because if you understand what the behaviors are that your child will display when they are in the grooming stage, then you can step in and really navigate your child out of that situation," Litvak said.
Litvak said it usually begins with someone the child knows, such as an acquaintance or a friend. That person is called the spotter.
"They slowly and very non-threatening come in and start up that relationship," Litvak said. "'Hey, how you doing? You boyfriend broke up with you? I mean, look at you -- you're beautiful.'"
In stage one, predators go online and search for children going through a life-changing event, such as a breakup, parents getting divorced or a death in the family.
In stage two, they gain the child's trust and separate them from peers and family members, introducing drugs and alcohol.
In stage three, they capitalize. This is when children could leave with their traffickers.
Litvak said this could take years, but there are warning signs, such as children suddenly having expensive clothing and purses or acting rebellious and skipping school.
Knowing who a child is interacting with, where they're going and where to find help can stop trafficking before it starts.
"I think one of the most prevalent threats that's on the increase at this point is the online enticement," said Michael Glennon, a supervisory special agent with FBI Detroit. "We've had several groups that have worked together, and again, they act like they're 14- or 15-year-old boys and that they're developing a relationship with these girls and they get them to, you know, give some sort of images of themselves in kind of a compromising fashion. Then they use that against them, and again, that could be the start of trafficking."
FBI agents said last year alone they identified and recovered 243 children in the area that were being exploited.
Parents should talk to their children about the dangers of sex trafficking, especially online.
FBI agents said children are 1,000 times more at risk of human trafficking sitting on the couch with a tablet than they are in public.