“I’m gonna check my email, Mom.”
Kaylee slipped into her room and gently closed her door, revealing an Owl City poster tacked to its face. She pressed her ear up to the crack between the door and its frame.
Faintly, she could hear her parents working in the kitchen.
Click. She locked the door and stepped over a pile of discarded clothes on the way to her desk.
She usually did not have to worry about her family respecting her privacy. They weren’t like a some of the uptight parents of her friends from school. But she wanted to make sure she would not be disturbed tonight. She was supposed to talk with Rick.
She powered on her laptop and waited for the internet to connect.
Rick was 17, funny and from a neighboring town. She’d never met him before, but it thrilled her to talk with someone three years older than she. Despite their slight age gap they shared a lot of interests.
Still, her family would never understand.
“Hi!” An instant message popped up on her screen.
Her fingers fluttered from key to key, tapping out a conversation with her digital beau.
He asked her to meet him.
“When?” She was a little scared when she typed. Half of her did it only to see how he would reply.
But that was impossible and unsafe, she responded. Her parents would kill her.
“They don’t have to know.” And then came a string of messages describing exactly what they would know – them and all her peers. Dark secrets she had confided to him. Dirty things she had said.
Kaylee was sweating, terrified, but felt compelled to assent.
She spent the next few hours worrying. Her thoughts raced while she waited until her father’s snoring could be heard drifting down the hallway. She tip-toed out the front door and walked with excruciating reserve to the gas station she and Rick had agreed upon as a meeting place.
“Hi, Kaylee.” She swung around in the direction of a deep voice behind her, but it wasn’t Rick.
This man must have been almost forty.
He grabbed her, stifling a scream, and pushed her into a van occupied by two other middle-aged men.
She was raped, handcuffed, and driven to a big city hours away.
After two years of forced prostitution, drug addiction, and sexual and psychological abuse, Kaylee killed herself by an intentional drug overdose.
The aforementioned Kaylee is a fictitious person. She did not die. She never lived.
But she acts as a representative for the two million people currently acquired through vile efforts and exploited in the United States.
This practice is called human trafficking. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, “Human trafficking is the acquisition of people by improper means such as force, fraud or deception, with the aim of exploiting them.”
According to the Oklahomans Against Trafficking Humans (O.A.T.H.) website, human trafficking is “a 34 billion dollar industry and the second largest criminal activity in the world.”
Like Kaylee, many of those trafficked are held captive in the sex trade.
Because there are roughly two million humans trafficked within our borders, America ranks as the number one destination in the world for child sex trafficking.
America is also the leading producer and consumer of another form of human trafficking, child pornography. Victims of this sick fetish-fueling industry tend to be between six and eleven years old.
Although America is plagued by such atrocities, many people remain oblivious to their proximity. This ignorance is also seen on the state level.
Oklahoma ranks high in the number of trafficked victims. O.A.T.H. director Mark Elam described the relationship between the location of this central state and the density of human subjugation here.
“Slavery follows port cities and trade routes,” Elam said. This means that cities like Houston and Portland are among the destinations favored by traffickers. But from there many victims are transported across the country, which results in a propensity for trafficking occurrences along major highways.
Because of the intersection of I-35 and I-40, Elam said that Oklahoma is a “pipeline” state that draws a large number of trafficked persons.
According to the O.A.T.H. coalition website, in 2003 Oklahoma was listed among the top four states with concentrations of trafficking survivors.
The website goes on to report that in “February 2009, our FBI Task Force working with Innocence Loss [an anti-human trafficking organization] rescued several girls from forced prostitution through a Craig's List [sic] sting operation.”
Despite the nearness of human trafficking, most Oklahomans remain uneducated about its extent, although Blockbuster movies like Taken have contributed to a rising awareness about human trafficking.
What Taken does not do is reveal how home-hitting an industry human trafficking is. Young Americans face the danger of being forced into a trafficking situation within their own state boundaries.
The O.A.T.H. coalition website stated that five years ago in an FBI program called “Stormy Nights” thirteen Oklahoma children (the youngest of whom was twelve years old) were rescued from a prostitution ring operating at Oklahoma City truck stops.
The most vulnerable target group for forced prostitution is runaways, many of whom come from single-parent, inner city families.
Next on the list are young girls from urban, middle class homes. This group is often targeted through social networking websites such as Xanga or MySpace. Predators befriend girls for up to six months or a year before they arrange to meet and abduct their victims.
Elam said that of the two million runaways every year, 50-60,000 are abducted, although many of these do not match the legal definition of being “kidnapped.”
About 300,000 of the two million become involved in human trafficking yearly. Runaways and “throwaways” find themselves alone and with no education and resort to selling their bodies to survive.
These individuals can be abused by those who pimp them out and who take the money they gain from their prostitution.
Their abuse, both psychological and sexual, turns them callous to a point where rehabilitation is often a bleak prospect. The return rate of these victims is very high.
“We need to create a system to reach out to these hardened victims,” Elam said, adding that the most successful rehabilitation programs are those run by formerly trafficked victims of prostitution and other forms of human trafficking.
But for many of these victims it is not even a question of getting the right kind of rehabilitation. Many do not receive any type of help at all.
The current mentality of law enforcement is “good guy versus bad guy,” Elam said. Law enforcement personnel who encounter prostitution rings tend to place everyone under arrest. They are unaware of the potential for human trafficking in such a situation, which further denies victims the opportunity to be counseled.
Much of this lack of education is caused by the relatively recent recognition of human trafficking as a domestic issue, he said. The first year human trafficking was observed as a large-scale operation within the United States was 1998. That case involved about a dozen international girls brought into Florida, which led officials to believe that this was an international problem.
By 2005, organizations established to help internationals found that U.S. citizens were involved too, but the groups lacked jurisdiction to liberate them. Formal domestic task forces were organized two years later to tackle human trafficking as we are coming to know it today.
Elam predicted that it would take three to four years for statewide law enforcement to catch up with what is being revealed about human trafficking.
He said that one of the most immediate needs was to create state legislation that reflects the more comprehensive federal human trafficking laws. In a separate meeting he also mentioned the need to set up an official state task force to deal specifically with human trafficking.
In the meantime, non-government organizations like O.A.T.H. are attempting to overcome what Elam calls the biggest impasse: lack of awareness.
Success in fighting human trafficking is most common in areas where citizens are trained to recognize trafficking practices.
In Florida, for instance, lay people trained to spot and report activity that resembles human trafficking play an enormous role in bringing criminals to justice and liberty to trafficking victims.
In Oklahoma, some people are catching a vision for the tremendous benefit such training has.
Blake Jenkins, a sophomore at the University of Oklahoma, was introduced to the problem of human trafficking last year at an event hosted by OU’s law association. He has since contacted Mark Elam to get advice on what course of action to take in thwarting human trafficking’s progress in Oklahoma.
Inspired by International Justice Mission, a group self-described as “a human rights agency that secures justice for victims of slavery, sexual exploitation and other forms of violent oppression,” Jenkins has founded Oklahoma Justice Mission (OJM), a student group at OU, to bring awareness and a passion to fight injustice to his campus.
OJM is working in tandem with O.A.T.H. to educate Oklahomans about the tragic presence of slavery so close to home. One aspiration of both organizations is to present information on human trafficking and sexual predation to children in schools, which they hope would lend the children the wisdom to identify and avoid dangerous situations.
Also in the future is a statewide PSA campaign planned to alert citizens to the reality of human trafficking.
Impeding this crime’s diffusion in America will be a difficult task. But for organizations like O.A.T.H. and OJM, this is only the beginning.
That being said, Elam is not disillusioned as to the complexity of the task set before him and others seeking to end this nuanced slavery.
“You can’t stop organized crime,” he said, citing examples of the escalating violence of drug cartels. “I have no delusion that we are going to stop this, but I want to get it down to where it is not the number two crime in the world.”