GASSVILLE, Ark. (NewsNation Now) — For almost two months, Haley Shell’s family has been waiting for a sign that their 15-year-old daughter is OK.
“We want you to know we love you, and our door will always be open,” her mother, Nicole McKiernan, said in a tearful TikTok video.
Shell was last seen Oct. 1. Her mother said she left a note in her room that read, “I need to do this, so don’t look for me. I will be back and I will make you happy for me.
“I hope you know I love u [sic].”
McKiernan suspects her daughter is being trafficked.
“I wholeheartedly believe that she was groomed, she was coerced,” McKiernan said. “And then she left October 1, thinking that whoever she had been talking to was going to be great.”
She said a neighbor drugged and assaulted Shell in July. Dustin Brandenburg, 20, is in jail awaiting trial.
Experts say victims of abuse or assault are too often lured in by human traffickers, who prowl on social media and pose as a sympathetic friend.
“It’s an automatic place where people who have vulnerabilities are crying out for attention, and attackers are going to be looking for that, to meet that,” Lighthouse for Life CEO Lisa Kejr said. Vulnerable people “feel safe, because they’re in their house. They’re in their bed, they’re in their room.”
McKiernan said Shell was using apps that put her in touch with random people on the internet, and she may have met a trafficker there.
“I believe that she met somebody on one of those apps, and that person coerced her into leaving and she is in imminent danger,” she said.
Heather Pounds Pagan knows the formula personally. She is a trafficking survivor.
“Said he loved me, said no bad things would ever happen to me again, that he was going to take care of me,” she recalled. “It was like he was coming in as my knight in shining armor and all the bad things were going to disappear and I believed everything he said.”
Instead, he got her hooked on drugs and forced her into the sex trade. As a high school dropout, she didn’t see a way to escape.
It was her life for 18 years.
“I had to work the streets, back then it was called street walking,” Pagan said. “You would walk until you made enough money to come in for the night.”
According to the most recent figures, in 2019, there were more than 22,000 trafficking victims and survivors identified in the U.S.
Despite the dangers they face, police typically don’t issue Amber Alerts for runaways because of the sheer number of them. McKiernan launched a change.org petition to reverse that policy.
“They have no media attention,” She said. “The only attention they get is from what their parents do, and that’s not OK.”
She also wants victims’ families to have the ability to request assistance from other agencies, which currently isn’t allowed.
“I asked for a bigger department to join forces, and I was told that I wasn’t allowed to ask that, that it had to be requested by the … initial department that filed the reports,” McKiernan said.
Regardless of the red tape in the way of spreading the message about her daughter to others, McKiernan hopes her daughter gets one message from her.
“Just please come home.”
If you know anything about where Haley Shell is, you can reach out to the Baxter County Sheriff’s Office tip phone line — (870) 424-4636 (INFO) — or click here to submit the tip anonymously online.
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