LONGVIEW — Police say an East Texas educator used a mobile app to arrange sex with a 15-year-old runaway — an example of how technology and social media are becoming more prevalent in luring young victims.
“We have definitely seen social media used in the recruitment of girls for trafficking,” said Tiffany Taylor, a juvenile outreach director at For the Silent, a nonprofit anti-sex trafficking and exploitation organization based in Tyler. “We have definitely seen recruiting tactics from Instagram and Facebook ... because we’re in the social media age, and that is where the kids are at.”
Lance Barrett Reese, 32, of Longview, was a Jefferson ISD teacher when Garland police arrested him in September on a charge of sexual assault of a child.
According to a Gregg County search warrant, a 15-year-old girl who had run away from home told police she met with several men, including Reese, through the Kik Messenger app and had sex with them for money. She also said she exchanged nude pictures with Reese through the app.
Kik is a mobile messaging application known for its features that preserve a user’s anonymity.
“Obviously, the more apps that are out there, the more that children are going to be curious about it,” said Detective Debra Stiles with the Longview Police Department. Stiles investigates crimes against children, and she speaks to parents often about dangers and safeguards when it comes to parenting in the digital age.
“It’s just a new form of communicating,” Stiles said of social media. “I strongly encourage parents to monitor their children’s devices but also have an open community with their children to determine if they’re safe.”
According to an internet safety pamphlet recently published by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children on the fbi.gov website, a survey of 12- to 17-year-olds revealed that 38% had posted self-created content such as photos, videos, artwork or stories.
Another survey of 10- to 17-year-olds revealed 46% admit to having given out their personal information to someone they did not know. The likelihood that children will give out personal information over the internet increases with age, with 56% of 16 to 17-year-olds most likely to share such information, according to the survey.
“There is no child prostitute,” Taylor said. “Whether it be goods, money, a place to stay (or) a ride, any exchange of goods or service under 18, that’s considered sexual exploitation. They can’t give consent — even if under their own accord.”
Reese is out of jail on $25,000 bond. His next appearance is set Tuesday in a Dallas County courtroom, according to court records.
Jefferson ISD placed Reese on administrative suspension at the time of his arrest.
In 2018, a police chief in Virginia identified 10 social media apps including Kik in a Facebook statement, saying that they were apps teenagers were using parents needed to know.
“Parents, the World Wide Web is the modern-day equivalent to the Wild Wild West,” Col. Jeffrey Katz, police chief in Chesterfield County, Virginia, said in the April 6, 2018, post. “There are bad actors out there who will leverage your child’s desire for privacy to groom them for exploitation while using otherwise legitimate apps. Do not give them this space or opportunity.”
The apps Katz identified included Calculator, Omegle, Yellow, Whisper, Ask.fm, Hot or Not, Burn Book, Wishbone, Instagram and Kik. He described how these legitimate apps could be used by predators.
“We’re seeing Facebook and Instagram and Snapchat and other social media apps become another place for predators to exploit youth whether they’re boys or girls,” Taylor said about the work in East Texas by For the Silent.
She added that exploitation occurs with young boys, too: “It’s reported less, but it’s not that it’s not happening.”
Taylor works with at-risk teen girls at For the Silent, a 12-year-old nonprofit organization fighting sex trafficking of girls in East Texas through prevention, survivor care and transformation programs.
She said she sees a lot of social media through her work each day with teenage girls.
“You see the vulnerabilities that are preyed upon by traffickers,” she said. “We know how hard it is for a girl to get out of the life.
“These apps aren’t going away, but how can you teach girls to navigate it safely?”
Taylor suggests parents talk to their teens about safety and to have an open line of communication to say if something is weird or doesn’t seem right and “to empower girls to say and know when things aren’t that safe.”
Great open communication with children is key, Stiles said.
“You have to be smart because these kids are smart and coming up with new ways to keep their parents from catching them,” Stiles said, “so I think parents have to be on top of their game when it comes to these sort of things.”
Holly Fuller, manager of the city of Longview’s Partners in Prevention, suggested parents set guidelines and parameters around their children’s use of cellphones.
“There are some apps out there where parents can be notified and see what’s happening with their children’s phones,” Fuller said. “I know of parents who take their children’s phone at 9 at night and don’t get it back until the next morning.”
With the popularity of social media, authorities don’t see the pressure from predators letting up. As Taylor put it, one social media app just gets replaced with another more trendy app.
“We would see a lot of ads and exploitation happening on Backpage,” Taylor said, “and with that being shutdown, it’s been pushed underground.”