Testifiers Express Urgency to Address Child Sex Trafficking on Hawai‘i Island
The pervasiveness of child sex trafficking dominated public testimony during Hawai‘i County Council’s Public Safety Committee meeting Tuesday morning.
“Our future is being stolen from us with every single child that is taken,” one testifier stated. “Trafficking doesn’t mean they’re leaving the state. It means their being used for sex exploitation or working for free.”
At the request of District 5 County Councilman Matthew Kaneali‘i-Kleinfelder, the Hawai‘i Police Department, and Hawai‘i County Prosecutor Mitch Roth addressed the Council in regards to the increased reports of missing children on Hawai‘i Island.
With what appears to be a troubling trend of missing and runaway children, Kaneali‘i-Kleinfelder said the goal of Tuesday’s meeting was to gather information.
HPD Lt. Sandor Finkey reported to the Council that the county has 152 cases on missing juveniles so far this year, all of which are classified as runaways.
The statistics show a decrease in cases from the same time period last year when there were 162 kids reported as missing. The reason there appears to be an uptick in missing keiki, Finkey said, is because detectives with the juvenile aid section have been working with patrol to circulate the information about missing children out more quickly.
Of the cases reported in 2020, ten children remain missing, Finkey reported. He added that two cases from 2019 also remain open, including the case of Benny Rapoza, who was reported as missing and endangered after his disappearance in December.
“We’re having redundancy,” Finkey said about this year’s reports. “In the past month, we’ve already had three who have been picked up and 48 hours later have run away again.”
The lieutenant also explained that the number of releases put out by HPD doesn’t encompass the total number of actual missing children because the department can’t put out an alert without a signed media waiver and photo from the child’s parent or guardian.
“There are numerous explanations (unhappy, possibly physical or sexual abuse, want to be with their boy/girlfriend, etc.) offered by juveniles as to why they left, but some do not give any,” Finkey stated in an email prior to the meeting. “Any criminal allegations are investigated.”
When a missing child case is made, Finkey explained to the council, law enforcement won’t close a case if they don’t have eyes on the child, confirming and verifying the child’s health and safety. Additionally, the cases are added to national databases.
Finkey said the issues start within the home.
“For children not in foster care, we want parents to talk to kids candidly if they run away,” Finkey said. “We want them to know what they’re doing on social media. We just want to make sure if a juvenile does run away, the parent is equipped with tools to help locate the child.”
When dealing with missing teens and runaways, Roth explained, the children usually come from a household where domestic violence is occurring or other trauma. Because of that, it’s important to work with nonprofit organizations to help get children the services they need, Roth added.
“We don’t have a lot of people being boogie-man snatched, but when you have a child trading sex for a place to stay or drugs, that’s technically sex trafficking,” Roth said. “A lot of times, victims of sex trafficking don’t know they’re being sex trafficked.”
Council Chairman Aaron Chung thinks there is a more systemic issue at the heart of the problem. Working in child protective services for 30 years, Chung said confidently that most of the runaway cases are related to Child Protective Services.
“A lot of times, the parents know where the kids are and feel they’re safer where they’re at than in foster care,” he added.
Additionally, Chung said, there is no security for places like the Salvation Army Interim Home, which provides residential, prevention, and intervention services to adolescents in communities. With security lacking, Chung said teens can easily walk out.
Finkey reminded the Council and the public to report suspicious circumstances when they see them.
“We have to tell people if it happened to you or a friend to contact police so they can document it,” he said. “If someone is being coerced or forced, they can come forward to us and tell us this.”
Finkey said people need to know that they shouldn’t fear coming forward.
“I’m also hearing that the families and children need validation,” Kaneali‘i-Kleinfelder said. “As elected officials, it’s our responsibility to have these discussions. For us to dismiss this lightly, is a mistake. It’s our responsibility to take care of these issues.”
Between Kona and Hilo, 16 people testified on the issue after comments from Roth and Finkey.
Jeffrey Coakley, chairman for West Hawai‘i Republican Party, said the problem with sex trafficking is real.
“Suggest we take this to another level and get the community involved,” he said. “I think that’s what’s missing. We can’t be bystanders — we have to be directly involved.”
Anastasia Ayers, Big Island Services Program Manager for Ho‘ōla Nā Pua, said the nonprofit organization has received many calls from the community surrounding the increase in missing children.
Ho‘ōla Na Pua promotes education advocacy on child sex trafficking. During her testimony, Ayers cited a study released this year that surveyed 20 survivors of trafficking on Hawai‘i Island. The study showed that the average age of trafficking was 8.8 years old and 85% of victims are females.
“Systems ranging from foster care involvement, criminal justice personnel, schools, and healthcare providers may have interacted with these children without recognizing the complexity of their experiences,” Ayers stated to the Council. “Without the support necessary to wrap around these children when they try to exit their situation, the cycle continues.”
A problem of this scope, Ayers commented, can only be tackled when the community is aware, engaged, and committed to preventing victimization and supporting the comprehensive services that are needed for those who have been victimized.
After the meeting, Ayers said she appreciated the discussion.
“I feel it opened up the conversation to continue putting our heads together,” she said. “People are ready to talk about it, and we wanted to take the opportunity to speak on it and show our support.”