Keep Your Eyes Open

Rescuing A Child From Her Perpetrator

Four years ago, a little girl who appeared to be the victim of human trafficking was saved because of one woman’s ability to identify and properly report suspicious activity that occurred before and during her flight.

In October 2009, I was on a humanitarian mission for Airline Ambassadors International, delivering aid to orphanages in the Dominican Republic. Before departing, we were briefed by Innocents at Risk in Washington, D.C., on the growing problem of human trafficking and trained to identify suspicious behavior, especially out of the Dominican Republic and Haiti. I had to leave the mission early and was traveling alone. As I left the hotel for the airport, one of the women on the mission said, “Keep your eyes open.”

When I arrived at the Delta Air Lines’ gate, I sat down across the aisle from a man traveling with a little girl. She was busy coloring, and I noticed that he was very softly speaking French to her. A little shiver went up my spine. Why would she speak French if she were from the Dominican Republic?

He was an attractive, clean and neatly dressed man, who appeared to be well educated. He spoke beautiful French, and was softly saying the colors to her. He was traveling with only a small black nylon bag, a light-weight jacket and a leather case. The girl only had the coloring book and a new stuffed toy with her.

Help Me

A victim of human trafficking is seldom in a situation where he or she can ask or signal for help. Often, the victim is too scared and has been warned by the perpetrator not to draw attention. That’s why specific anti-trafficking training is an essential tool for everyone in the travel and tourism industries. In addition, airlines can also take steps to inform their customers about human trafficking so there are even more people watching out for victims.

I asked him, “How old is she?” He very quickly and nervously replied, “2.” I said, “She is really big for her age.” There was no question in my mind that this child was not 2 but more like 3 ½ to 4 years old. My husband and I have six children and 17 grandchildren, so I am quite experienced in this area.

I continued to talk with him, trying to draw him out. I was still incredulous that this could be happening before my eyes. I asked where he lived. He said that he had flown to Santo Domingo to pick up his daughter who was visiting her mother for two months during the summer. He said that he lived in Miami, but we were flying to Atlanta … another “red flag.” Was Atlanta a less conspicuous airport for trafficking than Miami?

There were so many red flags that my head was reeling. I then told him that the reason I was questioning him was because of a new awareness program underway at all major airlines concerning human trafficking. He said, “Oh, yes, it is so terrible. They are taking them for body parts.”

Body parts? I was absolutely stunned. I had never even considered such a thing. I’d only thought that people — children in particular — were trafficked for child pornography and later prostitution. The man then waved a stack of papers in the air and said, “They can question me all they want. I have all of these papers to prove that she is my daughter. I spent the whole day yesterday getting her papers from the U.S. Embassy.”

Now, if she was his daughter and they lived in the United States, why would he need to spend the day getting her papers in order? I was starting to panic, wondering what I should do.

He picked up the little girl with the small black bag over his shoulder and asked me if I would watch his things so he could check with the gate on the arrival time of our plane. He was gone for about 10 minutes, and when he returned, she was fast asleep on his shoulder. I absolutely believe he drugged her because she had not displayed any signs of being tired when he left with her. I think he was afraid I would try to talk to her.

By this time, I was absolutely convinced that this was not his child and she was being trafficked. I was flying first class, so I boarded the plane first. I immediately went to the flight attendant, who was busy preparing to board other passengers, and asked her to have the captain radio ahead and alert immigration to carefully screen a particular passenger and child.

Initially, she seemed quite perturbed that I would bother her with what was probably a family situation. The flight attendant said they probably would not allow him to board the plane. I advised her not to denying boarding but rather to let immigration handle it. Otherwise, he might just board another flight with the little girl.

She spoke with the captain, who was very concerned that Delta Air Lines might be sued for requesting additional screening for the man and girl. In the meantime, I was doing everything possible to stay calm. I sent another message to the captain letting her know that I was asking her to radio ahead and request a careful screening of these two passengers. If the papers were in order, no one would be the wiser. I finally said, “A child’s life may be hanging in the balance. Please do this. There will not be any harm, if he is who he says he is.”

I spent the entire flight with the flight attendants hovered around my seat, giving them the little bit of indoctrination about human trafficking that I could provide. By the end of the flight, about half of the attendants thought I was right. Something was amiss.

One of them grasped my hand and said, “Oh, my heavens! How many such children have I seen and not even given it a second thought? Thank you for opening my eyes. Thank you for making me aware of this. I had no idea.” The other flight attendants had similar sentiments.

When the plane landed, I tried to reach immigration before the man and the child. Instead, two Delta Air Lines ticket agents stopped me at the door and let him go ahead of me. I didn’t trust that immigration had been alerted, and I was in a state of nervous exhaustion and fear for the child.

As we moved through the lines at immigration, the flight attendants just happened to stand in the “crew line” right next to my line. The man and girl were already going through the first screening. I was literally holding my breath when, suddenly, the inspector performing the screening came around from behind his booth, took the man by the arm and escorted him to an area the flight attendants called the “yellow room” or secondary screening.

One of the flight attendants said, “Oh my gosh, you are right. He is going to be extensively screened.”

While we were chatting about this turn of events, an announcement over the paging system using some type of code words summoned three immigration officers by name. Instantly, the three officers descended on the room with drawn weapons. At that point, all of the flight personnel and passengers still in line broke into a cheer and shout as he was arrested.

I had to finish clearing customs so I could catch a connecting flight to Sacramento. Several flight attendants emailed me, but no one was ever able to find out what happened to the little girl. One thing we know for certain is that she escaped a life that would be hard to contemplate.

Perpetrator Arrest

Because of one person’s actions, a human trafficker was arrested and a young child was rescued. Had it not been for that person’s compassion and willingness to get involved, the child may still be held in captivity, living a life the average person can’t even imagine.

You cannot imagine how stressful that entire situation was with just minimal training to guide me. The most difficult part was convincing airline personnel about the seriousness of the situation. Many flight attendants hugged me and said how grateful they were for the experience. Several actually wept because they were so dismayed to think about how many had been on their flights in the past and they just didn’t know.

It isn’t just flight attendants who need training; however. Flight crews and any customer-facing airline and airport personnel also need to be educated as to how to identify a crime and report it. My biggest challenge that day was trying to convince the captain to let the man and little girl proceed and stop them in immigration.

In retrospect, I made one very big mistake. I should never have confronted the man. He could have taken the girl and left the airport. I do believe that he drugged her. If so, my actions caused him to do so.

I cannot emphasize enough how vital it is that we provide special training to all airline-related personnel so we can help protect these innocents. This training can be conducted in a short period of time during flight safety training sessions. I only had about an hour of exposure to this trafficking problem during a business lunch in Washington, D.C., as we were departing on our Airline Ambassadors’ mission to the Dominican Republic. Still, it was enough to increase my level of awareness.

As Chairman of the Board of Airline Ambassadors International, I urge all airlines to include a program discussing human trafficking during their normal training sessions. Our non-government organization is dedicated to ending this terrible human tragedy, and we would like to educate as many people as possible.

My experience that day was probably the most intense three hours of my life. I will forever feel a part of that little girl’s life, and I pray for her well-being even now. We all have the ability to make a difference in someone’s life. I know that her life would have been quite different had I not been on that flight.

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