Human trafficking: Hiding in plain sight
By John Dobberstein, Editor
The path that victims of human trafficking head down is often paved with drugs abuse, household dysfunction and personal despair. But the trap being laid is so subtle that they fall into the perpetrator’s hands imperceptibly.
To show how easily people can become victims, Michael Hoskins asked a woman from the audience gathered recently at Broken Arrow business, to hear his talk about the subject, to come forward. In this fictional situation, he has been watching this woman come into a local coffee shop for a while.
As they shook hands, she walked away to find a $1 bill in her hand, having just heard the words from the strange man, “Hi, it’s good to see you. I’d love to see you back here again the same day next week, same time. Okay? Alright. It’s good to see you.”
Later, the perpetrator might take the victim out to the mall to buy clothes or other things of value and the trap has been laid, said Hoskins, a former drug intelligence officer and retired major with the Oklahoma City Police Department who now works with the Oklahoma Commission on the Status of Women.
“Now I own her, okay?,” Hoskins told more than two-dozen people at Waters Edge Winery and Bistro in a presentation sponsored by Citizens for Liberty. “She feels like I'm the only person in her life that truly cares about her. She does not want to go backwards to what she took from me to the ugly relationship that she had.”
Human trafficking has morphed into a $150 billion worldwide criminal enterprise, and Oklahoma is not immune. Youth are a big target, and sometimes they don’t realize they’re being targeted because cell phones have become so ubiquitous in their lives, Hoskin notes.
“Our whole life is on the phones. Well, guess what? If I want to traffic you as a teenager, I’m going to get on these social media apps and start trying to connect with you. It’s very, very simple for me to do,” he says.
The temptation with human trafficking often starts in households where there is a history of domestic violence, drug use or other problems that convince a child the best thing to do is leave, Hoskins notes.
“Because of that, you escape your world to find this new world where you feel like that you belong. So at Starbucks and these little coffee shops, (the victims) don’t realize how vulnerable they are. They have no idea,” Hoskins explains.
‘They remove themselves’
While human trafficking cases can have may origins, Hoskins notes the prevalence of illegal marijuana farms in Oklahoma have encouraged sex trafficking and forced labor run by transnational criminals.
Hoskins estimates 95% of the human trafficking victims he’s encountered have become addicted to methamphetamines – often by force so they become more willing participants.
Hoskins maintains human trafficking is the No. 1 unreported crime because most people don’t know what to look for and the early signs are not very obvious. Hoskins and other victim advocate agencies in the state have spent a lot of time trying to educate communities.
Some of the early signs victims may display is changing how they dress and what they wear. They might have suddenly removed themselves from a relationship or run away from home to find shelter on the street.
“They live with complete strangers. They remove themselves from their group of friends that they're used to hanging around with,” Hoskins says. “Oftentimes, they may even not speak as freely as they used to, or whoever their new friend or friends are may do a lot of talking for that person.”
Prosecutions a challenge
A major challenge in cracking human trafficking cases, Hoskins says, is that law enforcement in rural areas may be very low on resources. Departments often can’t provide any solid data on trafficking cases.
When officers walk into a motel room, trailer house, marijuana field barn or another place where trafficking might be happening, it is easy to find narcotics.
“So now what do I have as a law officer? I don't recognize perhaps right up front that I have a human trafficking case. What I see is a man and a woman in a motel room and I see methamphetamine, or I see heroin, or I see cocaine on the countertop,” Hoskins says.
“What am I going to think? A couple of drug addicts, right? They stopped in. You get high and oh yeah, there's going to be beer and whatnot in here. So I make this arrest, okay? To law enforcement that’s a big deal. So the arrest takes place, the case goes to the prosecutor as a possession of a controlled substance – not as a human trafficking case.”
Unfortunately, he notes, human trafficking cases are very difficult to prove in court because they must prove all the crime elements existed. And victims may not be eager to testify about it.
“Who's my witness? The victim who now has been a drug addict for however long, who has a terrible past. The victim who does not want to relive this nightmare that happened in his or her life and be on a witness stand in a courtroom where there's cameras in a gallery full of people listening to this disgusting, disgusting crime that took place?
“I’ve watched, they just break down. Most of them say, ‘Forget it. I don’t care. I'm not going to relive it.’”
Prosecutors also want convictions and may choose to pursue an easier charge to prove rather than risking a delicate case with a jury that may or may not understand the crime or sympathize with the victim. “It’s a difficult crime to prove for all those reasons. Therefore, some of these victims never get true justice for being a victim of human trafficking,” Hoskins says.
Some changes were made this year when House Bill 2054 became law in Oklahoma. It changes the charge of solicitation of prostitution from a misdemeanor to a felony, similar to a legislative effort in Texas that appeared to curb demand for the services.
Picking up the pieces
The organization with the highest profile in Oklahoma in fighting human trafficking is The Demand Project, which exists to eradicate human trafficking, online enticement, child sexual abuse material, and the commercial sexual exploitation of children.
Jason Weis and Kristin Weis founded TDP “to address the multifaceted fight against human trafficking and the commercial sexual exploitation of children.”
TDP works through preventing victimization through awareness and education; protecting victims and survivors by providing access to quality attorneys, restorative justice and pursuing civil litigation; and assisting law enforcement with victim recovery through support teams and residential and non-residential programs.
- The Demand Project
- Oklahoma Human Trafficking Resources
- National Human Trafficking Hotline: 888-373-7888
- White paper: Growing Epidemic of Human Trafficking in Oklahoma
TDP partners with the U.S. Marshals Service, Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, Tulsa Police Department, Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office, U.S. Department of Homeland Security Investigations and The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.
Shar Agosto, legal director and Journey Program executive director for TDP, said she became familiar with human trafficking in 2009 when she was a single mom and was preparing to enter law school. She became acquainted with TDP and has been with the organization for many years.
Agosto says Oklahoma has one of the largest campuses for victims to recover and put their life back together.
“We help them. We pick up those pieces,” Agosto says. “It was very hard work because the relational equity that these traffickers have stolen -- from children especially -- must be built back up. And there’s no easy fix for that.
“I can’t use the tips and tricks the traffickers used to help victims. We must undo all that, and we do it through relationships. And those relationships are messy and it takes a lot of time.”
Into the trenches
Agosto says helping children ages 11 to 17 is part of the focus of the organization and calls come in from all over. She once was working with a homeless outreach group that would travel to homeless camps in the area to check on the conditions. One day, she says, they found a couple of children living in a camp.
The organization called the Department of Human Services. Case workers did respond but determined the children were with their mother and had access to food and showers and were basically being taken cared for, Agosto says. Because there weren’t enough foster families at the time to take in the children, they were left at the encampment.
Six months later, the homeless organization came across the same children again at the same encampment. Having just attended TDP’s Homeless Outreach Group, the visitors decided something wasn’t right and called TDP.
The TDP and police went to meet the homeless outreach people and to find the 12-year-old girl and 8-year-old boy. “It's the hottest day in May. I'm in this suit, which is ridiculous. We're climbing over railroad cars and everything, getting down by the river,” Agosto recalls.
“We find this 12-year-old in a tent. Her mom is inside of the tent city, and then she's over here and we want to talk to her. There were like five homeless guys in this tent city protecting her, and they weren't going to let her talk to us.”
Police stepped in and said they needed to speak with the 12-year-old and the discussion did not produce much information. They went to speak with the mother, who was angry and likely believing her children would be taken away. Agosto says they emphasized it was an opportunity to help her children.
“We believe that you are a loving mother, and we believe that this is no place for a kid to be. So we talked to her for a while and then we had to go. And I called DHS because I’m a mandatory reporter. I'm telling them this is the situation. And they're like, ‘Is it safe for us to take a worker down there?’ ”
A DHS caseworker did visit, not finding the children or the mother as she and others were likely seeing the writing on the wall with the children in the encampment. The mother called TDP and signed over her children to the restoration program – along with a 16-year-old sister of the girl who was in a different state. She hadn’t seen her sister in more than 2 years.
“We're not exactly sure what has gone on, but we knew those kids were vulnerable to being trafficked. You can't be in a tent city like that where your mom is on meth and believe she is conscious of what's happening to two little kids,” Agosto says.
“When mom called and we did all the paperwork we got the kids to a safe place, and they got to sleep in a bed for the first time in 4 years.
Hoskins says the Oklahoma Commission on the Status of Women received a $150,000 grant from Gov. Kevin Stitt’s Council on Human Trafficking to travel across the state and increase community awareness about the crime.
They focused heavily on locations that had universities and junior colleges. Nearly every time, Hoskins says, people would come forward with concerns that someone they know might be in trouble.
“So it was incredible to see this is happening right under our noses, and that nobody comes forward and talks about it because they don’t know for sure what they’re seeing. So I would encourage you to educate yourself on what it really looks like. Find out who your resources are here locally, and don't be afraid to pick the phone up and call 9-1-1.”