Hidden: Oklahoma's Human Trafficking Crisis


Thursday, September 17th 2020, 11:12 pm
By: Bonnie Campo


OKLAHOMA CITY -

Oklahoma is now one of 34 states to be selected for a new federal grant to aid sex trafficking survivors.

Over the next three years, $500,000 will be designated to help find temporary housing, work programs, and other needs for those who have been bought and sold in the metro.

The unsettling reality is, for every criminal caught, there are even more victims trying to escape the dangers of this hidden crisis.

There are also many misconceptions about where the true danger lies.

Fifteen years ago, human trafficking was often mistaken for street-level prostitution, in 2020 that’s changed.

The rise of business on the internet has made these once busy streets almost empty.

“People go online to find these girls, or these girls will advertise online,” said MSgt. Gary Knight with the Oklahoma City Police Department.

To catch traffickers, police and Oklahoma City Vice have changed the way they work.

Customers buy online through social media and dark websites, and then meet inside hotel rooms.

Investigators said victims can be sold 10 to 20 times a night, for about $5,000 a week.

“If I sell a human, and I have manipulated that human, that victim, to believe that I am in total control of his or her life…I can sell that human over and over and over,” said an undercover officer.

Police said victims are typically teens who have run away from home and are trying to escape drug addicted, or abusive caregivers.

In these cases, traffickers, who are usually gang members, may promise them a better life, and the victim won't discover they've been trapped until it's too late.

When it comes to the trafficking of young children and cases of child pornography, investigators said family members, or family friends are often the suspects.

U.S. Attorney Timothy Downing said every year the federal government prosecutes three or four cases against high-level traffickers.

In these cases, the alleged victims are not kidnapped because there is less suspicion if life remains normal.

“Maybe they show up to school. Maybe they still come home from time to time, but yet they are being forced through some type of cohesion for money,” said Downing.

One recent conviction is that of Germaine Colter.

Police arrested Coulter and his accomplice Elizabeth Andrade during a prostitution sting in 2018, reporting his cellphone contained pornographic images of high school aged girls believed to attend Edmond Santa Fe.

“He would keep getting out, and he continued to re-offend. In fact, some of his victims that worked for him, that he had in his sex trafficking ring would recruit young girls,” said Downing.

As traffickers are locked away in prison, their victims are weighed down by years of trauma.

“How do you trust another human being after what you have been through,” asked Whitney Anderson, Executive Director and Co-Founder of The Dragonfly Home in OKC.

Since 2016, Whitney and her team at The Dragonfly Home have served around 400 survivors, both adults and children.

In some cases, the survivors are pregnant as a result of trafficking.

“We have seen many cases where survivors are being sold by their moms, by friends, by classmates at school, by husbands, by businesses,” said Anderson. “The forms of trafficking. It’s all horrible, but when I see that family members are selling their children to pay their rent, or drug addiction. They are making money off selling their children to pedophiles that is especially heartbreaking.”

Currently, there aren't any designated beds in Oklahoma City, and survivors are often sent up the turnpike to Tulsa, or out of state.

This lets them stay local, with months of support.

“Giving them a bit of relief as they are going through recovery. Allowing them to find housing, making those deposits, finding out where to rent,” said Periann Pulliam, Chief Executive Officer of Upward Transitions.

Resources can be found here.