Missing Children and Human Trafficking in Oklahoma

A recent local news story revealed that as many as 78 missing children in Oklahoma are minors in DHS custody. Nearly half of these children, of whom the Oklahoma Department of Human Services has lost track, have been missing for more than three months. Critics of the state DHS system say that the agency responsible for taking children from their homes should be likewise responsible for making sure those children are safe and secure in a shelter or foster home. They argue that 78 missing children is a staggering and shameful number, and that DHS has failed in its duty to protect endangered youth by failing to find these children.

The Department of Human Services counters by saying that it is believed that all of the missing children are runaways, not victims of abduction. DHS asserts the difficulty of preventing teens from running away--either to return to the parents from whom they have been taken or to escape the rules and structure of foster homes and DHS facilities.

Unfortunately, the fact that these kids are runaways does not mitigate the dangers they face. Oklahoma is being recognized as a major hub for human trafficking, with I-40 crossing the state from east to west, I-35 spanning the state's borders from north to south, and I-44 reaching from southwest to northeast Oklahoma. The most likely victims of sex trafficking in the United States? Runaways and disenfranchised youth.

No longer a crime restricted to back alleys of Bangkok and overseas destinations, human trafficking is a real problem in the United States. In fact, in 2012, the U.S. State Department listed the United States as the leading destination for human trafficking. Among the most active states are California, New York, Texas, and Oklahoma.

Human trafficking is not the same as smuggling humans across the border. Transportation is only one of five actions--along with recruitment, transfer, harboring, and receipt--required for to define human trafficking. These actions, along with the means of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of forced labor or commercial sex, constitute human trafficking.

It is important to note, however, that coercion is not required for human trafficking charges involving commercial sex acts with the victim is under the age of 18. Runaway and homeless youth are disproportionately involved in commercial sexual exploitation--prostitution, child pornography, and stripping, for example--as a means of survival on the streets.

A University of Pennsylvania School of Social Work: Philadelphia study entitled "The Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in the United States, Canada, and Mexico," reveals startling statistics about the number of disenfranchised, runaway, and homeless youth involved in the child sex trade:

  • The average age of entry into prostitution is 12-14 years old for girls and 11-13 years old for boys
  • 75 percent of runaway and sexually exploited girls are controlled by traffickers
  • 70 percent of "street youth" are involved in commercial sexual exploitation
  • 30 percent of youths living in shelters are involved in commercial sexual exploitation

Sex trafficking in Oklahoma first gained widespread public attention in 2011, when the dismembered body of 19-year-old Carina Saunders was discovered in a duffel bag behind a Homeland grocery store in Bethany, Oklahoma. Since then, multiple of arrests have been made as a result of local law enforcement action and federal initiatives, such as Operation Cross Country 7.

DHS may have lost track of 78 young people in their custody, but it's a safe bet the traffickers know where to find them.

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