When a 16-year-old girl took a bike ride to meet a friend on an ordinary Friday afternoon, she set out on a journey she would never forget. When she didn’t return home, her parents realized she was missing and called 9-1-1. But when the police investigation came to a standstill, a group of private investigators from Saved in America came to the rescue.
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Saved in America is a non-profit group made up of retired U.S. Navy Seals, law enforcement officers, and special operators who volunteer to assist in locating missing and runaway children.
In January of 2016, Saved in America was contacted by Maureen and David Toal, from Newport, panicking that their 16-year-old daughter went missing from a trip to meet up with one of her friends. The daughter, whose identity has been kept private, met up with a friend who had run away from home a month earlier, and they planned to run away together.
When they couldn’t get a hold of their daughter via phone, the Toals reported the situation to the police. However, three weeks later, there was no progress on the case. The thought of their daughter out in the unknown distressed the parents so much that they couldn’t wait any longer; thankfully, they could still reach out to Saved in America.
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Immediately, the group sprang into action on the case. They launched a website and offered a reward to people who could provide information. Within a week, they received a tip and tracked the teenager down and rescued her in Compton, California. The girls had gotten a ride from an older man, who drove them to Los Angeles, where they were sold into sex trafficking.
Since December 2014, the San Diego-based group has assisted with 197 cases of missing children from California to Florida, and 60 percent of found children were located before being trafficked.
Joseph Travers, a chaplain and private investigator, founded Saved in America after learning about the 2009 Brittanee Drexel case in which she was kidnapped and murdered.
“I knew that street gangs, prison gangs, and cartels took over drug trafficking in the 1980s and then they took over sex trafficking at the turn of the century,” Travers told PEOPLE. “When I read about [the 2009 disappearance of] Brittanee Drexel, who disappeared off the face of the planet, I just knew gangs were involved.”
With so much to deal with swamping the police each day, finding missing children isn’t the highest priority on their list. Between the police being overwhelmed and the parents of the victims in pain, Travers decided to organize a team to step in.
The organization recruits volunteer specialists and trains them to be licensed private investigators. With help from supporters such as the William D. Lynch Foundation, he is able to gather a team of trained individuals to work with law enforcement on locating runaway and missing young men and women.
Furthermore, Saved in America connects victims of trafficking with resources for treatment and rehabilitation. Often, rescued children become drug addicts and some are even brainwashed by traffickers leading them to run away again. The team works with their families to provide safe housing and rehabilitative therapy to help them return to normal life.
The team has received many letters, even from law enforcement officials, praising them for their efforts.
“Most of the parents are in a panic stage, and they’re waiting for something to happen,” Travers told VICE News. Saved in America is available as a resource to help the parents themselves to pick up the where the police left off.
The team of volunteers devotes all their time and effort into helping others without asking for anything in return. “To look a mother in the eyes like Maureen and to see just heart when she knows ‘I have my child back,’ that’s our reward,” Travers said.
“This isn’t in some far away country with very poor people,” Travers’s son Joshua told PEOPLE. “This could be your next-door neighbor, your child, anyone’s child.”
What happened to the Toals’ daughter can happen to anyone. The police are dedicated to protect and serve the people. But when there’s more demand for their attention than they can supply, it’s good to know that there are avenues that the average person can turn to, seek justice, and make the world a safer place.