The realities of human trafficking and how parents can protect their kids - MetroFamily Magazine
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The realities of human trafficking and how parents can protect their kids

by Erin Page

Haley Felix doesn’t know any victims of human trafficking personally. But she’s spent much of the past year of her life fighting for them.  The Edmond North High School alumna completed a 1,700 mile, six-week cycling journey along the Pacific Coast in July to raise more than $230,000 for an Austin, Texas organization called The Refuge for Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking. Felix and nine other college-age women were selected after an application and interview process to represent The Refuge in the 2019 ride.

A friend of Felix’s from Oklahoma State University participated in the ride last summer, and Felix initially applied after thinking the bike ride looked like an exciting challenge. Then she began to research the cause.

“I was super naive to the subject of sex trafficking,” said Felix, who graduated from OSU in May. “I always thought it was like what you see in the movies, someone snatched up and forced into prostitution. But this is happening in our own back yards, just down the street. It looks a lot different than what people think.”

Felix was most impressed by the trauma-informed wraparound services and community The Refuge provides young girls and teens who’ve been exploited. Curious if there were similar organizations in her hometown, Felix’s research led her to The Dragonfly Home, the only certified service provider for trafficking victims in Oklahoma City, and one of only three in the state.

The Dragonfly Home opened the first human trafficking non-residential crisis center in Oklahoma in November 2016. Though Melissa Eick, The Dragonfly Home co-founder and director of communications and development, says the founders believe wholeheartedly in a shelter model, they realized there were victims of sex and labor trafficking who didn’t need a shelter and had nowhere to go to connect with the highly specialized resources to heal. In addition to providing medical attention, mental health care, therapy, legal assistance, connection to safe places to stay, educational and career support, basic necessities and support groups, The Dragonfly Home hosts movie nights, art parties and holiday celebrations.

“The reality of human trafficking is dark and hard,” said Eick. “But when people get the help they need, it’s incredible to see. I’m inspired by their courage, resilience and resolve to move forward.”

The cozy, welcoming crisis center has expanded twice since opening, and the organization is currently raising funds to open a shelter. The Dragonfly Home has served 350 victims of sex and labor trafficking since inception and fielded 3,500 calls to its 24-hour helpline, which also provides emergency relocation services to victims any time of day, any day of the year.

Felix applied to become an intern at The Dragonfly Home shortly after finding out she’d been selected for Pedal the Pacific, determined to learn more about how she could make a difference for children and adults who’d lived through the horrors of trafficking. Felix’s work for The Dragonfly Home was primarily administrative, but she received training in trauma-informed care and trafficking recovery.

Felix’s self-proclaimed naiveté has been replaced by a depth of understanding of the common misconceptions about sex trafficking and exploitation. Her career outlook has changed dramatically, too. Though Felix earned her degree in nutritional sciences, she is working for AmeriCorps in Denver mentoring students for a year, after which she plans to get a graduate degree in counseling so she can spend her life aiding trauma victims.

Metro tweens and teens vulnerable to trafficking

There’s not much more terrifying for parents than considering the reality of sex trafficking happening to their own children. Acknowledging that possibility is the first step in fighting back, getting educated and arming kids to protect themselves from the dangers.

“Be aware of what sex trafficking really looks like, and don’t be the parent who thinks it could never happen to your kid,” said Felix. “This can happen even to kids who have great parents, who love and support them.”

Young women like Felix give Lori Basey, president and co-founder of Oklahoma City-based No Boundaries International, hope for the future of her work in increasing awareness and understanding about sex trafficking and exploitation in the metro. After five years of training and mobilizing local volunteers to aid overseas trauma victims in disaster- or war-torn communities, Basey and her colleagues realized the great need for trafficking prevention and awareness in Oklahoma City.

Felix is a prime example of what Basey says works best in keeping tweens and teens safe from becoming trafficking victims themselves: education and empowerment to become part of the solution. Eick and Basey agree the first step in keeping kids safe from the dangers of trafficking is the parents’ willingness to acknowledge the realities themselves.

No Boundaries International has worked with students who’ve been trafficked, and pimps, from the Oklahoma City and Edmond public school systems. The Dragonfly Home, too, serves people from what Eick calls “nice homes, nice neighborhoods and good schools” right here in the metro. Eick recalls watching a local law enforcement officer pose as an 11-year-old girl on Instagram, innocently declaring she was bored and home alone all day. Within two minutes, multiple known local predators were contacting her.

“Parents need to know, even if they have provided a safe, loving environment for their kids, this is a problem that’s right around the corner, especially if their kids are on social media,” said Eick.

It’s a common misconception that trafficking always involves kidnapping or that traffickers are strangers. More often, trafficking victims live at home without those around them even realizing it’s happening, and they are trafficked by someone with whom they think they’ve developed a positive relationship.

“Pimps aren’t snatching kids up while they’re playing at the park,” said Felix. “It’s more manipulative, building a relationship over time, getting in their heads.”

Felix learned in her training that pimps often meet their tween and teen targets online, at the mall or at a party. They exchange numbers and text or message on social media over a period of time, earning the child’s trust, affirming them, listening to their woes and worries and eventually proclaiming love or offering to help the child achieve their dreams or escape challenges. Basey warns that kids seeking love or acceptance, who have low self-esteem or don’t feel understood can be vulnerable to these tactics, and those emotions can be fairly common among tweens and teens, even those who have a positive home life.

After developing that relationship, it’s often the child who asks or agrees to meet who they think is a friend, and that’s typically the point at which he or she is sold for sex, without even leaving the metro. Victims are returned home, threatened into silence and expected to be available any time in the future. Many victims live in this cycle, ashamed and afraid to tell anyone what’s happening.

“Less than one percent of trafficking involves abductions,” said Basey. “Kids often willingly go, they make one bad mistake or go one place they shouldn’t. Pimps are incredibly patient and try to get them isolated eventually.”

Though Felix says she wasn’t fully aware of the dangers of sex trafficking, she vividly recalls her mom requiring her to watch a program about internet safety and the prevalence of pedophiles. They had frequent conversations about making good decisions online, and that atmosphere of ongoing conversation about tough subjects is one she believes parents should emulate. Felix still adheres to her mom’s and the program’s advice of never friending or responding to people she doesn’t know online. That advice includes sending photos to strangers, or even mere acquaintances.

Through her work as a trauma-informed occupational therapist, Basey has discovered approaching teens about sensitive issues with an agenda tinged with fear, shame or a “just say no” mentality tends to incite curiosity, while simply presenting the facts directly can better encourage long-term, open-ended conversation.

“As early as 10 or 11, it’s important that parents talk to their kids about internet safety,” said Eick. “While talking about human trafficking takes a level of maturity [in kids], parents can start talking about ‘bad’ people who might reach out to them on social media.”

Eick cautions that waiting until junior high or high school may leave too much room for kids to have already been approached or even exploited, though it’s never too late to have the conversation. She adds it’s imperative to take kids seriously if they report someone on social media saying or doing something creepy.

“If they have the courage to report something, it’s worth listening to,” said Eick.

Parents should talk to kids about the photos they post online, and be hyper aware of the photos they post of their kids, too, both parties considering how much exposure they are willing for those photos to gain. Eick says consistent checks on kids’ phones, texts and social media accounts are an absolute must, as are a frequent review of apps that can lead to exploitation. To aid teens and families, The Dragonfly Home hosts free monthly seminars about internet safety and how traffickers target victims online.

Felix adds that while sex education is imperative for parents to cover with their kids, they should also have ongoing conversations about what healthy relationships look like, guiding kids’ expectations for romantic relationships and discussing red flags.

“Kids are going to have these conversations anyway,” said Basey. “Parents have to decide if they want the internet, other kids or situations to give them the information or if they want to be the one to provide it.”

Trade fear for empowerment

Basey encourages parents and their tweens or teens to engage with organizations like No Boundaries International by dropping off donations to their clothing closet or food pantry or serving food through their food truck, which can open the door to those hard conversations about the dangers of trafficking and why organizations like No Boundaries International exist.

“We tell kids, ‘yes, you are being targeted, but here’s what you can do about it,’” said Basey.

Basey was thrilled when Deer Creek High School students took that message to heart, raising the funds for their food truck, which provides free meals in vulnerable and impoverished communities in the metro. The truck is a tangible tool to break the barrier of isolation and establish relationships with community members at risk of exploitation.

Families can collect donations for The Dragonfly Home using the wish list on the organization’s website. Gift and gas cards and essentials like toilet paper, tissues and paper towels are always needed.

“Kids in our city are at risk, but rather than give in to the fear, become an active part of the solution,” said Basey.

Local Resources to learn more: 

The Dragonfly Home – Visit the Events page for more information on free internet safety seminars and the Support Us page for a current wish list.

No Boundaries International – Visit the Outreach and Get Involved pages for how you can help.