Dave Boucher and Stacey Barchenger, The Tennessean
A scared girl thinks she has few options. She doesn't feel loved or understood at home, but she finds that comfort elsewhere.
She believes the older man when he says he loves her. And so she accepts his affections. She leaves with him when he tells her to follow.
It's a scenario that may have taken 15-year-old Elizabeth Thomas from her home in Columbia, Tenn., to a 12-by-12-foot cabin thousands of miles away in a remote northern California forest with 50-year-old former teacher Tad Cummins. Police say Cummins abducted his student, and federal authorities have charged him with transporting a minor in interstate commerce with the intent to engage in sexual activity.
While the case of Cummins and Elizabeth drew national attention, experts say similar situations occur regularly across the country. It's up to parents and communities to educate, notice warning signs and intercede before inappropriate conduct or an abduction happens.
“We all get so busy, and sometimes it’s convenient for the coach and the teacher to drive the kids to events. You have to always ask yourself, ‘Is this appropriate that so-and-so is spending so much time with my child, or my young teenager?’" said Dr. Rebecca Bailey, a California-based psychologist since 1991 who has worked with young victims and serves as a consultant for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
"These kids, they are vulnerable.”
A 12-year-old student first noticed Elizabeth and Cummins kissing in a classroom after school on January 23, according to FBI documents. Even though, if true, this is illegal, Maury County Schools officials simply told Cummins not to be in the same room as Elizabeth, according to documents in his personnel file. After he was discovered in the same room as Elizabeth on Feb. 3, school officials suspended him for insubordination on Feb. 6.
Cummins wasn't fired until March 14, the day after police believe he took Elizabeth on what would become a 39-day run from the law. The school district has since created a task force to review policies to improve notifying parents about "any range of potential student and/or faculty/staff incidents."
Direct action and conversation can help parents, school districts and communities understand why these situations happen, Bailey said.
"We’ve got to talk about this openly and not go into shame when this happens, not blame the victim," Bailey said.
"Sometimes it’s like they get so far down the rabbit hole, the victim, they don’t know how to get out. So helping kids have connections with appropriate peers and adults is important. But we need to keep an eye on those who do step forward."
Bailey and her sister, Elizabeth Bailey, wrote a book called "Safe Kids, smart parents: What parents need to know to keep their children safe." In the book and in her daily work, Dr. Rebecca Bailey discusses the importance of fostering positive relationships with children while teaching them how to deliberately think through their decisions.
"One of the most important inoculations early on is to help kids develop critical thinking and develop a sense of belonging with the family," she said.
Young people who feel isolated are more likely to be vulnerable and fall into a trap, Bailey said. While a coach or teacher may initiate a relationship with a student with the intent that it become sexual, Bailey said there are times where there was not the adult's expectation from the beginning. That's where proper oversight and training to establish appropriate boundaries is so necessary, she explained.
Vulnerability is key in creating situations ripe for exploitation and abuse, and is found in the types of situations that are far more frequent than Cummins' case.
Looking for a place to belong
The case of a teacher like Cummins allegedly taking a student is rare. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children found in 2016, 1 percent of all cases the nonprofit participated in involved a kidnapping by a non-family member. Far more frequently, children run away. The center estimates that of the more than 18,500 endangered runaways reported in 2016, one in six were likely victims of sex trafficking.
But those who work to end sex trafficking see similarities in Elizabeth and some of the victims they save: Children looking for a place to belong.
"They're almost exactly the same," said Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Assistant Special Agent in Charge Margie Quin, who leads human trafficking investigations and the Amber Alert program in Tennessee. Factors that can lead to becoming a victim include growing up in poverty, experiencing traumatic situations, having drug addicted parents, being exposed to repeated instances of domestic violence and early childhood sexual assault, she said.
TBI Assistant Special Agent in Charge Margie Quin speaks during a press conference in 2016. Quin is in charge of Amber Alerts in Tennessee.
"They'll come with you if they think what they're going to is better than where they're coming from," Quin said of the victims. "That never is. When I train law enforcement I say, show of hands, who in here made good decisions when they were 15?"
Authorities lament that sometimes public perception is that victims go willingly along with their abductors or traffickers. Instead, they stress that perpetrators rely on having power to manipulate their vulnerable victims.
"The public will say they went voluntarily, this is their choice," Quin said. "Like somehow that makes it OK for a 50-year-old teacher to groom and brainwash his student into some kind of romantic relationship."
'A dream that becomes a nightmare'
A caretaker at the rural northern California cabin who helped end the manhunt for Cummins on Thursday, said Elizabeth gave him a fake name and did very little talking.
"That is absolutely one of the red flags" a child is being manipulated, said Derri Smith, founder of End Slavery Tennessee, which works to combat human trafficking.
There are things parents can do to prevent victimization, she said. That includes paying attention to who their children friend and follow on social media, and watching for changes in behavior, advanced sexual knowledge, an influx of money from an unknown source or sudden truancy issues.
Victims are told lies, isolated from their families, made to believe they're in love. As a result, Smith said, they don't always want to leave.
"We see that every day here," Smith said.
"Just the selling of a dream that becomes a nightmare. There’s this psychological manipulation of someone who has a need."
Reach Dave Boucher at 615-259-8892 or firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @Dave_Boucher1. Reach Stacey Barchenger at 615-726-8968 or email@example.com or on Twitter @sbarchenger.