By Sydny Pepper
For Ashley Wilson, a special agent with Homeland Security Investigations in Jacksonville, her work with child exploitation and human smuggling investigations stems from a very personal connection. That connection has been calling her towards a career protecting the most vulnerable populations for as long as she can remember.
“I believe it is the best work we can do in law enforcement,” she said. “My mother was a victim of child sexual abuse for several years during her childhood. Once I learned about her abuse, I knew there was nothing I could do about it at this point.”
She said that was something very difficult for her to accept.
“What I can do, and what drives and motivates me, is to give every single investigation my absolute best effort. You never know what could be the one thing that makes a huge impact in a child’s life.”
Through her work, Wilson said she has felt she has a chance to make an impact by helping others who too often fall prey to those who take advantage of children, women and others who are most at-risk.
“I feel I’ve always had a protective instinct and am committed to protecting our most vulnerable populations when they need it most,” she said.
“Every time we successfully prosecute a child predator, rescue a child from a harmful situation, or get restitution for the numerous victims in these types of cases, we are making the community a better place … Our children deserve an environment to grow without the fear of becoming victims of predators seeking to harm them daily.”
Wilson said she always knew this is what she was meant to do, and likened it to a calling she knew she had to answer.
“I’ve always been drawn to law enforcement and have several family members who have had a career in law enforcement.”
Wilson said that this, along with her academic background, really motivated her to pursue an active career that would be both physically and mentally challenging.
“I was born and raised in McAllen, Texas, which is a city in south Texas located on the U.S./Mexico border. I was a student athlete at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas where I played second base for the university’s softball team. I earned a bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice and minored in Psychology.”
During her junior year in college, she interned with the Austin Police Department’s Child Abuse Unit and knew right away that law enforcement was where she wanted to be.
“Immediately after graduating from Texas State University, I applied with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to become a special agent and went through the hiring process. Two years, two months, and 23 days later, I finally got the call and was offered a special agent position.”
Two weeks after the call, she was on the way to the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) in Brunswick, Georgia, for a 22-week training program that included the Criminal Investigator Training Program and ICE Special Agent Training.
When mentioning some of these challenges she faces, she talked about what it was like to be a woman in this line of work, and how she deals with all the pressure that comes from her position.
“I’m extremely proud to be a woman in federal law enforcement,” she said. “It is unique, challenging at times and very rewarding. I believe it is important for all law enforcement (federal, state and local) to have a mixture of men and women on their force. Men and women are equally valuable as they provide very different strengths and skill sets to their departments or agencies.
In addition to conducting child exploitation investigations, Wilson has had the opportunity to obtain several certifications during her career.
“I am a nationally certified EMT and a member of our ICE Tactical Emergency Medical Services (TEMS) Program. The purpose of the TEMS Program is to provide emergency medical services to employees, to those under the control and domain of ICE/HSI during law enforcement field operations, disaster relief efforts, and high-risk training exercises, and to the general public with whom ICE and HSI personnel interact as part of their official duties. I’ve been a Firearms Instructor for 6 years and am a certified member of our Rapid Response Team and Special Response Team,” she said.
“In the history of our agency, I am one of only three females certified as an SRT member.”
With all of this, there is an immense pressure on her shoulders. When asked about how she deals with all this weight, she talked about the importance of mental health, and being able to learn your limits.
“I enjoy being active and working out. I love being outdoors and on the water. Mental health is just as important as physical health, so I do my best to take breaks, or briefly step away, when I start to feel overwhelmed or burned out,” said Wilson. “Employing the services of a competent mental health therapist can be highly effective in coping with the pressures of this profession. I believe it is important to know your limits, maintain a healthy work-life balance, and check in on your colleagues.”
This is advice that everyone can learn from and be inspired by, and our community, along with the multitude of people she has saved, are all the better for it.
“I feel very fortunate to be part of an incredible group that is committed to saving and protecting children who often times don’t have a voice of their own.”
Wilson has been special agent with Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) in Jacksonville Florida for the past 15 years. She moved to Florida from Laredo, Texas, which is a city in south Texas located on the U.S./Mexico border.
She came to The Northeast Florida area in 2014, and like many St. Augustine natives, never wanted to leave.
“While Texas will always be home, I wanted to experience a different place to live — one that was still sunny and near the water! Once I moved to the area, I quickly fell in love with St. Augustine and everything it has to offer. I am definitely not in any hurry to leave the area.”
Wilson’s task force covers 16 counties in Northeast Florida, including St. Johns and is dedicated to protecting them all in every way she can.
“I think the most important thing is for our community to trust us. We signed up to protect the public and at the end of the day, do good things. It’s also extremely important for us, as law enforcement officers, to have good integrity. As HSI agents, we protect the public from crimes of victimization, strategically targeting and investigating individuals and networks that engage in child exploitation, human trafficking, forced labor, and financial scams affecting vulnerable populations. HSI’s victim-centered approach to these investigations has led to the identification or rescue of thousands of victims of child sexual exploitation, human trafficking, and financial fraud.”
HSI in partnership with the FBI and National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), is increasing national public safety awareness highlighting an incremental rise in incidents of children and teens falling victim to financial sextortion – being coerced into sending explicit images online and extorted for money.
HSI encourages the public to report suspected child predators and any suspicious activity through its toll-free tip line at 866-347-2423 or by completing its online tip form.
Learn how sextortion works and how to talk to your children about it. Information, resources, and conversation guides are available at ICE.gov/Sextortion