FOX23 Investigates: Human trafficking at home versus abroad

TULSA, Okla. — Sex trafficking is a crime that happens all over the world, and right here in Tulsa. FOX23 Investigative Reporter Janna Clark looks into how it can look different here than in other countries, and what as parents you need to look out for.

Janna is part of a Tulsa team that just went to the Philippines on a mission trip. They went to help girls who have been rescued from sex trafficking or abuse. Trafficking that happens here in the U.S. can look different than what happens abroad.

It could be anyone — like a child in your neighborhood or someone who goes to your children’s school — who’s the victim of sex trafficking. Kristin Weis with the Demand Project helps victims.

“When sex trafficking came up, it was a brand new understanding that people using kids as a product for financial gain,” Kristin explained.

Janna asked her what it looks like here in Tulsa.

“The internet and smartphones have changed everything,” she explained. “So now a predator, he doesn’t walk the streets. His new corner is the internet. So he can be on social media and be luring and grooming kids every single day.”

Janna also asked her how a 12-year-old girl could find herself online and end up being trafficked.

“If a person is chatting with a young girl, they’re they’re going to find ways to compliment them. Maybe even give them gifts, slowly lowering their boundaries,” Kristin said.

U.S. Attorney of the Northern District of Oklahoma, Clint Johnson, works to prosecute sex trafficking cases. He told Janna that his office’s priority is always the child victim. That child, according to Clint, is typically groomed or tricked by the trafficker.

“Sex trafficking and human trafficking in Oklahoma is a hidden crime,” he said. “The means and methods are often driven by social media, instant messaging, Snapchat, Instagram.”

He continued, “[The children] tend to be vulnerable, poor, lacking a home, stable home life ... things of that nature in which individuals will prey on those individuals. Give them what they want, whether it’s for love, attention, affection and then work them into the sex trafficking business.”

Clint also said anyone can be a trafficker.

“There’s really no profile for a trafficker,” he said.

Kristin agreed, “We have seen doctors and lawyers and CEOs of companies, teachers, coaches [and] pediatricians.”

Trafficking here in Tulsa doesn’t always look the same as in other countries, like the Philippines. There, kids are often sold by their own parents to be exploited online.

“That’s what we’ve seen a lot of in the Philippines,” explained Homeland Security Special Agent John Reinosa. “Family members would exploit their own children.”

He continued, “The kids are terrified. They want their parents. Their parents are the ones doing this to them.”

Janna asked John how parents could understand how another parent could do that to their children.

“The decisions they’re forced with is something I couldn’t articulate,” John explained. “I wouldn’t understand because I would never make that decision for my child. Their tough decisions is something I couldn’t even fathom.”

Janna noted that the Philippines is facing severe poverty. John agreed.

“One-fourth of the country is faced with not knowing, you know, where they’re going to get their next meal,” John explained. “So something like extreme poverty could lead you to these decisions that one can’t even fathom to make.”

John added that much of the demand for sex trafficking comes from Americans.

“Sadly, from what we’ve seen, a large majority from the investigations that we’ve had, it’s majority U.S. citizens,” he said.

Janna asked him why so many Americans are involved.

John said, “So, in the Philippines, the internet is free and widely available. It allows individuals from the Philippines to connect with people from all over the world. Their primary language is English in the Philippines. I think that the money services businesses that are established here are also established in the Philippines.”

“I think the traffickers may look for people in the U.S. to be friends on social media,” he continued. “So they can get involved in those types of conversations.”

He confirmed that predators and traffickers primarily meet online at first. At some point, predators may want to meet in person, and traffickers set that up.

“The person from the U.S. will fly over to the Philippines, get information of where they’re supposed to meet, tell the traffickers to meet them ... wherever they agree upon,” John explained. “And that’s where they’ll exchange the money for sexual acts.”

Janna asked him what the term for this is called. Sex tourism.

“It’s heartbreaking, but it’s very rewarding to put bad people away. And they don’t have access to kids anymore,” John said. “But it really is a terrible type of investigation because you see the worst of humanity.”

John said a program started in 2016 called Angel Watch to combat sex tourism by targeting sex offenders traveling overseas.

“We will notify that country of their travel plans and their itinerary,” he said. “And what they do with the information can be anything from, you know, nothing to not allowing them to enter their country.”

Janna commented to Clint that the crime wouldn’t exist if there was no demand. Clint agreed.

“It’s a sad commentary on society,” Clint explained. “But there has been a demand for individuals to have sexual relations with minors. And they’re the most vulnerable members of our society. And I think we have an obligation to try to protect those individuals as best we can.”

Once the victims are free from their traffickers, Kristin works to help the ones she can.

“Our hope is that they see that there’s an opportunity and that there’s a better way of life, and that now they’re safe, they can make different choices,” Kristin said.

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