Local victim of sextortion speaks out as experts say number of cases climbs higher and higher

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — It’s called sextortion: the use of nude photos of someone to manipulate them into sex trafficking.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children says online enticement targeting children is up 93% from January 2019 to January 2020.

Experts say that once children are involved, they don’t know how to get out and are often afraid to tell their parents. Many of them go on to self-harm, such as cutting, and start contemplating suicide.

One young woman who was groomed and enticed through sextortion shared her story with FOX4. We agreed not to share her full name.

Abi was 11 years old when her best friend’s stepfather started to notice her. As he paid more and more attention to her, he told her she was beautiful and made her feel special.

He then started asking for photos of her. Then he started taking photos of her and sharing those with other men. Abi said he used her photos to lure her, then extort her, into sex trafficking.

She said he threatened her, her family, even killed her dog in order to control her.

“You feel like you’re all alone, carrying this huge secret,” Abi said. “I thought if I talked about it at all, that somebody would have died and that would have been blood on my hands. My abuser poisoned my dog.”

She said she felt stuck, with no way out. The abuse went on for years.

Russ Tuttle, president and founder of the Stop Trafficking Project, said sextortion and trafficking happen widely throughout the Kansas City area, as well as in rural parts of Kansas and Missouri.

He speaks to hundreds of students annually through schools. Those in-school talks stopped when COVID-19 started, but he says the pandemic only makes it easier for predators.

“There are kids who maybe the only trusted adult in their lives is someone in their school district system, or maybe it’s a teacher or coach or a nurse, and they don’t have access to those people right now,” Tuttle said.

The Stop Trafficking Project works to educate kids and parents through school presentations, workshops and online resources. Tuttle said parents, guardians and trusted adults need to stay involved in their kids’ lives daily.

“It doesn’t mean that parents need to know about every single app that exists because that’s impossible,” he said. “It does mean that you should have unfettered access to that device.”

Renee Van Meter, who leads the crisis team at Johnson County Mental Health and hosts a mental health podcast, said teenage brains are still learning to solve problems and regulate emotion. So when trauma happens, they don’t know how to cope.

“So that’s when we start seeing kids isolated, socially: ‘I don’t want to be around my family. I don’t want to be around my friends,'” Van Meter said. “And all of this is built into this perfect storm. The perfect storm for me is when somebody gets to the point of worthless, hopeless, helpless.”

She said when someone reaches that point, they start believing that harming themselves or taking their own lives is the only way out.

Abi said she developed anorexia. It almost killed her before she finally told her parents about the sextortion. She struggled with feelings of shame and guilt.

“It feels like you’re dirty and tarnished and disgusting, and that you’re never going to be able to be free of it,” she said. “I would want somebody to know that they’re not disgusting. They’re not abused  — or they are abused — but they’re not damaged. They’re not worthless.”

Van Meter said it’s urgent to discuss this with your kids long before you think they need it.

“We have to have those conversations way earlier than in the midst of a crisis,” she said. “That’s not the time to have it. Anybody in the midst of a crisis is not going to be taking that information in, in a healthy way.”

Van Meter said kids will tune you out if you’re either yelling or telling, so don’t raise your voice or lecture. Instead, ask questions, listen and be vulnerable. But don’t avoid the conversation thinking that you’re protecting your kids.

“You are not going to present an idea that’s not already being put out there by media and television,” Van Meter said.

The Stop Trafficking Project and Missouri Highway Patrol have found that the online grooming process now only takes about eight days – just more than a week – from when a predator contacts a child or teen to convincing them to send photos of themselves.

Abi’s abuser has yet to face prosecution. She’s still grappling with her issues but hopes that sharing her story can help someone else.

Resources

If you or someone you know is a victim of sextortion or sex trafficking, there’s help available. Please reach out to any of the numerous resources below.

The FBI has a toll-free number to report sextortion. Please call 1-800-CALL-FBI (225-5324).

Or if you are struggling with mental health and need assistance, please call 911 or one of the numbers below. Additional resources are also listed below.

If you are thinking of hurting or killing yourself, please call 1-800-SUICIDE (1-800-784-2433) or 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255).

The Johnson County Mental Health Crisis Line is open to anyone, anywhere, anytime. Just call 913-268-0156.

Or you can reach the National Alliance on Mental Illness at 800-950-6264.

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