As Ambassadors of Hope, you and I can likely relate in that we can’t help but get on a soapbox when the topic of vulnerable children is raised. We’re passionate about protecting kids and simply want to equip others with tools to keep their kids safe from predators. Admittedly, as a mom of three little boys, I’m not as involved in trafficking prevention as I was previously, but God reminded me recently that I am to sow the seeds; He will do the tending. And occasionally, I’ll get to see Him harvest.
Last August I noticed a missed call and voicemail.
“Hello, Shelby, this is Eleanor Smith* calling and I was hoping you could give me some help. Our grandson Sam* posted some pictures on TikTok and a lady contacted him and said she sent his pictures to a model that she knows. Eventually, this model contacted him and said that he wants to fly him to L.A. for a photoshoot because he’s all wowed by the way he looks. Anyway, this smells like a trafficking scam to me. Any information you have that we could convince him that this is not a good idea, I would greatly appreciate it.”
It had been seven years since I presented on human trafficking at Eleanor’s church, a body that included many people I had known since childhood. At that time, I would have immediately labeled what Eleanor described as a trafficking scam. Now, I have my husband’s voice in my head cautioning me, “Not everything is trafficking.” I paused, prayed (because the Lord knows how out of the loop and uneducated I feel these days!), and got to work. Over the course of a few days, I learned more details from Eleanor and her son Jon*, Sam’s dad.
Sam was 17 years old, a good student who was self-motivated and seemed to have lots of friends. His parents divorced a few years ago and don’t share a common parenting approach. Remarkably, Grandma Eleanor and his dad Jon had maintained very open communication with Sam and he told them a lot, including his handles on Instagram, TikTok and other apps.
Sam had become very active on social media and had amassed over 2.3 million followers on TikTok. A brief look through Sam’s public TikTok profile raised red flags for me. His frequent posts included provocative lip syncs. The slightly more sensual videos of him lip-syncing shirtless on his bed boasted literally millions of views per video.
I cringed. While I didn’t use TikTok personally, I knew that predators frequently flag posts on social media to alert other predators to content they like. I could only assume that Sam, who was hoping to begin a modeling career, naively believed he was impressing the masses. He had been wooed by flattery and the offer of a lifetime: a photoshoot in L.A. with a big-name model.
I could never have foreseen that the seed sown seven years ago in a DMST presentation to Sam’s grandma would lead to the opportunity to intercede for Sam.
Many of the details didn’t add up, not the least of which was the fact that the modeling industry doesn’t function in the way that Sam was experiencing. Moreover, the COVID pandemic has birthed brazen scams luring young people into modeling and other lifestyles, except that traffickers, not modeling agencies, await those who take the bait. This particular model was also employing all the same “charming” techniques that traffickers are prone to, building trust, inviting Sam’s questions and saying he just wanted to give another young guy the opportunities he had been given. Sam was being lured by what Jon and I believed to be a polished, professional predator.
To make matters worse, with his mom’s blessing, Sam had already purchased his ticket to fly to L.A. two weeks later. Jon had limited time to persuade Sam and Sam’s mom of the potential dangers he might face. I had initially sent Jon links to resources from Shared Hope, but I then reached out to our Director of National Outreach for help. With lightning speed, she crafted a network of support for Sam and his father. This included expert counsel from an intervention organization in L.A., a call with a seasoned FBI victim specialist, calls with a male trafficking survivor, and most importantly, a formidable army of prayer warriors.
Against our hopes and words of caution, Sam flew to L.A. for the photoshoot. Miraculously, the model and photographer were both “unable” to meet Sam and his mom for the photoshoot. On short notice, Sam instead did a photoshoot with a reputable photographer whose sage wisdom about the legitimate modeling industry seemed to strike a chord with Sam. He actually called his dad and said, “I think I dodged a bullet with that other guy”. We all breathed a little easier that day, so very thankful that God answered our prayers and used that photographer, along with so many others, to call Sam back to safety.
Sam is still pursuing modeling and hasn’t yet heeded warnings to rein in his social media activities, but I trust that God will use the network now formed around him to guide Sam on his journey. For my part, I could never have foreseen that the seed sown seven years ago in a DMST presentation to Sam’s grandma would lead to the opportunity to intercede for Sam. Friends, I encourage you to keep sowing your seeds, and trust that God’s watering them for harvest in due time. He, more than any of us, wants to protect vulnerable children.
*All names have been changed*
Shelby, an OH Ambassador