The 2011 brutal murder and dismemberment of 19-year-old Carina Saunders from Mustang has thrown Oklahoma and human trafficking into the national spotlight, where many Edmond residents least expected to see it — close to home.
Oklahomans Against Trafficking Humans (OATH) is a non-profit organization that was created to combat this horrific and overwhelming problem. Started in 2008 by a group of Tulsa residents and led by director Mark Elam, OATH began with the goal to simply raise awareness in Oklahoma.
According to the their website, Oklahoma ranks in the top ten states for human trafficking and Edmond OATH spokesperson Lori Ford explains why. “It’s because Oklahoma ranks among the top five states in the number of reported cases of child abuse, divorce, and teen pregnancies. Our state also has a high number of children who suffer from hunger.” Ford shares, “I was shocked to learn that the OK Board of Education reported in 2010 that Oklahoma was ranked number two for homeless youth. And the OKC inner-city public schools are at 50% drop out rates.” Combine these negative factors with our convenient transportation system with I-35, I-40 and I-44 and you have created a ripe harvesting ground for predators.
Ford adds, “What we found is that truckers have a saying that goes, ‘Go to Kansas for good food, Oklahoma for young girls.’” The average age of these “young girls” is barely 13 and getting younger as time goes on.
Proactive in their approach, OATH has trained numerous police officers and state officials, and Elam remains the first point of contact when someone calls for help. “We try to offer everything that we can so that [each victim] can get her life back and move forward,” Elam says on their website video.
OATH partners with the Salvation Army in reaching out to the community in regards to human trafficking. But the Oklahoma City area shelter options are limited in space and many only accept women 18 and older. Elam shares, “There needs to be a special long term program developed to help these girls recover.”
“Most of these girls have the social maturity of a child, while predators exploit them to use their body in adult acts,” Ford says. Because of this and victims’ “inability to believe they deserve something good in their lives,” OATH is now raising funds to buy property outside Oklahoma City. Their goal is to create a safe house where young girl residents can live without fear and have a chance to restore their confidence, their ability to trust and their lives.
“Twelve to 18-year-old girls is our target group for the safe house. We will have experienced counselors willing to work with these girls as well as a well-screened house mother to provide a more nurturing and healing atmosphere,” Ford says.
To fund their safe house’s purchase, the organization is planning a golf tournament in the spring and receives private and corporate donations.
OATH isn’t the only organization taking action against human trafficking. Jennifer Crow, local Victory Church co-pastor and author of “Perfect Lies,” was called to extend her helping hand all the way to Lesotho, Africa, through a vivid dream. In the dream, the word “Lesotho” was spelled in large letters over the horizon. Crow didn’t know what Lesotho was until she did a Google search on it. What she found was a 61-page report by the United Nations on human trafficking there which inspired her to found the Beautiful Dream Society.
“Often, young women are promised a job in a shop [in South Africa]. Once they get there, it is actually an older man who wants a wife. She is forced to remain on the property and have sex with him,” Crow explains. “Because they are transported illegally, they have no passport and the men can threaten them: ‘If you go to the police, they will arrest you.’”
Trafficking isn’t limited by gender. Ranchers force boys as young as 10 to become “herd boys” for their livestock in the mountains. “They live with sheep 24/7, only given enough food to subsist, no education and not allowed to contact his family or leave,” Crow said.
From Crow’s original dream, the organization built a shelter overseen by full-time Lesotho house moms, psychologists and social workers. The rest are Lesotho volunteers. “The people of Lesotho want to see this stopped. They have been very open. It has been a great team effort,” Crow said.
It’s working. In January 2011, Lesotho passed its first legal act outlawing human trafficking. There are five trials already in progress.
“Less cases are being brought in to the police…” Crow said. “It could start going underground, but people are realizing we can’t treat other human beings this way. We’ll be there for the long haul, either way.”
For more information about OATH, go to www.oathcoalition.com. To learn more about the Beautiful Dream Society, visit www.beautifuldream.tv.