Indigenous Women Trapped in Human Trafficking in North America

The subject of human and sex trafficking has been popular in the media recently. From the recent exposure of celebrities involved in trafficking and sex rings to the implementation of SESTA/FOSTA by the Republican party. Headlines focusing on celebrity figures and politicians silences the voice of vulnerable populations who are predominately impacted by human trafficking such as Native and Indigenous women on Reservations across North America.

Human traffickers prey on individuals who are socially oppressed, marginalized within their family and community, and vulnerable due to poverty. These circumstances create the perfect recipe for human traffickers when oil drilling corporations are interested in geographic regions near Reservations.

Corporate America has created the ultimate vehicle and tool for human traffickers to generate a business based on the exploitation of Indigenous girls and women. The scariest aspect of all is that the Johns/potential buyers within the encampment are not utilizing websites like or

Human traffickers are exploiting unsuspecting girls and women by transporting them directly to the oil drilling encampments. In other words, the implementation of SESTA/FOSTA by the Republican party fails to protect Indigenous women, men, and children trapped in human trafficking.

The Indigenous population of North America is 2.5 times more likely to experience violence in comparison to other neighboring populations. The statistics on violence and trauma becomes increasingly alarming because a majority of children on Reservations are exposed to violence before the age of 5. The high rates of violence on Reservations is a result of widespread poverty, Western colonization, and low job employment or opportunities. The impact of poverty and colonization has had devastating consequences on the Indigenous population residing on Reservations in South Dakota.

According to the 2010 census, the Pine Ridge River Reservation only consisted of 3,308 individuals. By 2014, almost 50% of Indigenous women and men reported experiencing violence, sexual assault, and domestic violence. These statistics indicate that 4 out of 5 Indigenous folks have experienced some form of violence at least once in their lifetime. In fact, statistics and rates of sexual violence may be higher due to under-reporting. These instances of violence increase based on non-native intervention, poverty, substance abuse, and childhood exposure to violence.

The high rates of violence, poverty, and substance abuse play an active role in the widespread occurrence of human and sex trafficking on Reservations. For Indigenous folks in North and South Dakota, instances of human trafficking have become increasingly problematic with oil drilling. The corporate interest in oil drilling has a negative impact on the Indigenous community by intentionally placing large groups of non-natives in close proximity to Reservations.

The promise of gaining monetary compensation for drilling has rebranded North and South Dakota as the new Western Frontier. Human traffickers and pimps benefit from the large oil drilling encampments because they are utilized as a one-stop-shop for marginalized Indigenous girls and women. This indicates that interests in corporate oil drilling have caused the onset of missing and murdered Indigenous girls and women across America.

Over spring break, I had the opportunity to visit the Pine Ridge River Reservation and Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota with an Immersion Program offered by the University of Southern California. However, an encounter during our last night in Rapid City made extremely aware easy someone can become a victim of human sex trafficking.

After dinner, we were approached by a young girl who proposed that her male friends wanted to meet and sit with us. We immediately declined the invitation, but that did not stop her male friends from approaching us. We recognized the red-flags of the situation and safely removed ourselves from the establishment.

We were only able to recognize the signs of human trafficking because we are privileged. As USC students, we are privileged with money, power through name recognition, and education. We have been trained to spot dangerous situations and problem-solve solutions on the spot. We have the money to afford the education and have been trained to recognize these red-flags. In addition, we might not be as vulnerable to human trafficking due to our socioeconomic status in America.

This close encounter with the young woman and group of men resembles Allison Mack’s role as a recruiter for the NXIVM group. Allison Mack exercised her privilege as a trusting and recognizable celebrity figure to lure and entrap unsuspecting women into human trafficking. Mack’s role as a female recruiter for NXIVM is a common tactic utilized by human traffickers.

Indigenous women and children do not share the same experiences as non-natives. As a matter of fact, 7 in 10 Indigenous children are expected to graduate high school and only 17% pursue higher-education. The risk-factors and barriers to completing and pursuing higher-education increases based on poverty, the absence of parents in the home, exposure to trauma and abuse, and substance abuse. These risk-factors place Indigenous women and children in a vulnerable position to be lured and swayed by the promises made by human traffickers.

In 2017, the #MeToo movement gained immense popularity in mainstream America, although the movement was originally created by Tarana Burke in 2006. The colonization and erasure of WOC is a topic that isn’t foreign to Indigenous folks on the reservation. Indigenous girls and women continued to feel excluded by the blatant disregard for native voices in the #MeToo movement.

In order to raise awareness surrounding the missing and murdered Indigenous girls and women across America, Senator Heidi Heitkamp drafted Savannah’s Act in 2017 and created the alternative hashtag for the movement: #NotInvisible. Savannah’s Act aims to fill the service gaps found in the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) to provide safety and protection for Indigenous women and girls. Since Savannah’s Act has been introduced, the movement has not gained much traction based on America’s proficiency to erase and silence things that do not make us feel comfortable.

What exactly can we do about human trafficking on Reservations across North America? First, let’s beat down the virtual doors of our government officials by tweeting and sharing facts and statistics surrounding human trafficking on Reservations.

Continue to share it with your friends, family members, and colleagues. Heck, bring it up over Thanksgiving dinner this year! The most important factor is raising awareness and advocating on behalf of Indigenous folks across America and Canada. Indigenous folks have asked again and again for visibility through education, advocacy, and public awareness.

As non-natives, let’s create a platform where they can stand on our shoulders and share their experiences across America and Canada. Together, let’s continue to rally for marginalized individuals on Reservations across America.

Rescuing Sex Trafficking Victims

Lois Lee, Ph.D., J.D. – Founder of Children of the Night Photo Credit: CalState

Forty years ago, it wasn’t unusual to find Lois Lee, Ph.D., J.D. wandering the streets and alleys of Los Angeles at 3 a.m.; she even did so while pregnant with her son.

Dr. Lee was looking for victims of sex trafficking and those who exploited them.

Walking miles along Sunset, Santa Monica and Hollywood Boulevards, the then-24-year-old would hand out business cards with her hotline number, encouraging victims to call and letting them know what kind of help they’d find.

“These are girls, boys and transgender children that would fall between the cracks of the system,” remembers Lee. “They had nowhere to go — no one was providing a bed or a school or offering to take care of these kids.”

So, she created that place.

From 1979 to 1981, Lee housed more than 250 sex trafficking victims in her own home, all while building the Children of the Night outreach program; the privately funded nonprofit organization would become unlike any other in existence at the time, or even today, rescuing children from child prostitution and providing housing, education and treatment.

But perhaps most important, Lee gave them hope.

An Unimaginable Life

Lee was raised in Los Angeles, the eldest child in a family of three girls. It was a childhood she describes as healthy, safe and sheltered.

So when, as a graduate student at California State University, Dominguez Hills, her faculty mentor Jeanne Curran, PhD., then a professor of sociology, introduced her to the underworld of sex trafficking, it was a wake-up call.

“I wanted to make everything better because I just couldn’t imagine someone living in these types of conditions,” explains Lee, who graduated from CSU Dominguez Hills with a bachelor’s degree in behavioral science in 1973 and a master’s in sociology in 1977.

It was at CSUDH that she developed the skills she’d later use to address child sex trafficking. Lee also taught courses at the campus’s Social Systems Research Center, then led by Dr. Curran. The center has since been renamed the Urban Community Research Center.

“Jeanne became a mentor for me, both on- and off-campus. She influenced my life and academic choices so much,” says Lee, a first-generation college student.

“She and CSU Dominguez Hills empowered me.”

Victims, Not Criminals

Late one night in 1977, Lee received a call from a woman who operated an escort service. A 17-year-old she worked with had not returned and she was unable to contact her.

Afraid, she had called Lee for guidance. Lee went to the police, who dismissed the call and refused to help. The next morning, the girl’s body was found; she had become one of the Hillside Stranglers’victims.

Frustrated by the lack of resources that were available to these girls, Lee appeared on an L.A. news broadcast, giving out her personal phone number and encouraging prostitutes with knowledge of the case to reach out to her directly. She promised confidentiality.

“I coordinated everything just as I had learned from Jeanne at CSU Dominguez Hills,” Lee recalls. “And that was really the beginning of my work.”

Lee would go on to play a critical role in the Hillside Strangler trial, testifying in the case and coordinating witnesses for the prosecution.

At just 27, Lee garnered attention when she sued the Los Angeles Police Department for prosecuting underage prostitutes while letting their customers go free.

She won the case and has gone on to file a number of other lawsuits.

“I taught vice detectives nationwide that there were children prostituting and they needed to be treated differently,” says the President’s Volunteer Action Award recipient. She strongly advocated – and still does – to have the children referred to and treated as victims, not criminals.

Education: The Key to Success

To date, Children of the Night’s president and founder is credited with rescuing more than 10,000 children from prostitution in the U.S.

The organization’s shelter, located in Van Nuys, California, offers no-cost housing for as many as 12 children ages 11 to 17. They attend classes at the on-site school, receive individualized treatment, and participate in fun outings. A nationwide toll-free hotline is also staffed 24/7.

Lee sees education as the most fundamental of the services they offer, and attendance is mandatory for all residents.

“What’s really important about the development of any society is to educate the people,” she explains. “Through education, I was able to learn about the world. Education empowers.”

While children are offered treatment to manage trauma, their past experiences are not the focus, Lee stresses. “I don’t feel sorry for the children with whom I work,” she says. “[That] incapacitates their ability to become strong and independent. I want the world for my kids. I have very high expectations of them.”

Which is not to say she isn’t deeply empathetic to what they’ve faced.

“There is no way that I can make what happened to them go away, but I can … put distance between their old lifestyle and their life now.”

Still Fighting

Today, Lee is regarded as one of the world’s leading experts in rescuing child sex trafficking victims, raising awareness on a topic that previously wasn’t talked about. In 1981, the General Accounting Office estimated there were 600,000 children under the age of 16 working as prostitutes in the United States. Today, that number is estimated to be 100,000.

In January 2017, Children of the Night announced a new global initiative to rescue 10,000 more children worldwide from sex trafficking.

Lee is also passionate about giving back to the campus that helped turn her dream into an advocacy mission that has no doubt saved thousands of lives.

“So much of what I have done and have been able to do in my life is because of my time at CSU Dominguez Hills,” Lee says. “The faculty raised me and nourished me. They liked to take risks and they challenged traditional thinking processes. “Dominguez Hills taught me how to break down barriers.”

How to Help Human Trafficking Survivors

sex trafficking

Human trafficking, particularly sex trafficking, has become an area of interest both in the general public and also within social work. As a result, attention, money, and resources are being allocated for this cause. The array of services needed for human trafficking survivors is complex, but one area that is not receiving enough support is in employment and training for survivors.

As Evelyn Chumbow, a survivor of domestic servitude and anti-trafficking activist stated, “There are times when I feel like screaming on behalf of all human trafficking survivors, we need jobs, not pity!”. I have served in the roles of both case manager and therapist for trafficking survivors. Across both roles, I have heard trafficking survivors express their exasperation and fear of not finding employment outside of the sex industry. What are the barriers?

Many sex trafficking survivors entered the sex industry at a young age, which likely resulted in a disruption in education. Because of this many did not have the opportunity to complete their high school degree.

Furthermore, many have criminal records that reflect prostitution charges. Expungement can be extremely complex to navigate. Many have no prior work history or spotty work history. All of these factors can make employment difficult to secure.

Survivors may also not feel comfortable with, or have success with, explaining their circumstances to a prospective employer. Finally, transgender trafficking survivors may face increased discrimination in employment due to barriers already described, but also as a result of their gender identity.

Employment can be a gateway for trafficking survivors to build independence. Traditional employment programs may not be a good match unless the staff is trained are well-trained on the particular employment issues that trafficking survivors may face and are able to find employment, sex trafficking survivors end up homeless or returning to the sex industry out of desperation to support themselves.

For those interested in helping sex trafficking survivors, consider how to help them in building job skills and obtaining employment. Some programs that serve trafficking survivors incorporate a jobs skills and employment component. One program that does a great job in this area is Thistle Farms, which was featured in the documentary A Path Appears.

While trafficking survivors may not have a traditional work history, they do have skills. They were able to survive their situation and have internal strengths. Despite the unimaginable circumstances they may have experienced, they have hope and want to support themselves and contribute. Many I have worked with have expressed a desire to make meaning of their experience and help others who have been trafficked.

At a recent conference held by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, many survivors voiced their need for skills training and employment. As one trafficking survivor stated, “Once we escape, there is a whole new hell…You can rescue us all you want, but what we need is an opportunity. We want jobs, we want education, we want choices”.

Four Tips to Help Communities and Churches Battle Human Trafficking

WACO, Texas – Super Bowl festivities in Houston will be in full swing this week as the nation gears up for the NFL’s premier event on Sunday. Thousands of people will pour into the city. Unfortunately, those crowds will include those involved in human trafficking.

“We can expect to see an influx of out-of-town victims and trafficking solicitations during Super Bowl weekend. Much of that will take place online,” said human trafficking expert Elizabeth Goatley, Ph.D., assistant professor in Baylor University’s Diana R. Garland School of Social Work.

Goatley said large-scale national events like the Super Bowl draw attention to human trafficking, and it’s an appropriate time to make people aware of the epidemic, which victimizes hundreds of thousands of people within the United States each year. Globally, an estimated 20.9 million people are victims of human trafficking, resulting in a $150 billion industry, according to the International Labour Organization.

“Communities can make a difference in combating human trafficking,” Goatley said, “but it takes knowing your neighbor and your neighborhood and doing for the ‘least of these.’”

She offered the following tips to help communities better understand and combat human trafficking.

1. People must understand that human trafficking includes both sex and labor trafficking.

Human trafficking is the bartering or transactional engagement of a person for sex or labor, through the use of force, fraud or coercion, Goatley explained. Most communities and congregations focus on the “commercialized sex” part of human trafficking and often neglect those who are trapped in labor trafficking.

2. Human trafficking is cultural and contextualized to specific environments.

“When people say, ‘Tell me what human trafficking looks like,’ my response is always to reflect on how those in poverty are surviving in that community,” Goatley said.

In urban areas, she explained, it may look like the commercial sex industry (strip clubs, online ads, local prostitution tracks or brothels) or like day laborers who are financially exploited. It may look like childcare workers who never get days off, no breaks and little pay for labor; or it may look like a teenage runaway who needs food and barters sex for a meal or place to stay and is not allowed to leave.

In rural communities, she said, human trafficking may look like agricultural workers who are refused breaks and payment, or those working in toxic conditions and sweatshops. It may look like a family member bartering sex with a child to pay a bill.

“To best address human trafficking, people must know what’s going on in their communities,” she said.

3. Human trafficking is no respecter of race, gender, class or religion.

“There is no ‘type’ of person that can be lured into human trafficking,” Goatley said.

In a recent column Goatley penned for Ethics Daily, she provided the following examples of those who’ve fallen victim to human trafficking.

“Through my work in trafficking, I’ve heard stories from the 15-year-old competitive swimmer from the elite swimming club who fell for a guy she met on the Internet. When he asked for a meeting at the local mall to “hang out,” she didn’t hesitate. She told her mother that she was meeting friends at the mall, left home and didn’t return,” Goatley wrote.

“I’ve listened to a mother describe the struggle of providing for her family in her native country and the decision she made to sacrifice everything for a chance at a better life in America. She paid a coyote (smuggler) to help her cross into the United States, but upon crossing the coyote refused to let her go without a $10,000 ransom. She was forced to have sex with strangers until her debt was paid,” she wrote.

“I will never forget the story of the migrant worker who ‘followed the crops’ to provide for his family. He worked long hard hours in the fields picking a plethora of fruits and vegetables, pulling tobacco and tending to stables where he wasn’t allowed breaks and paid a dollar and a half a day,” Goatley wrote.

Fortunately, she wrote, all of those stories are of survivors who were assisted by local churches and other human trafficking organizations.

4. Get involved.

“Get to know the needs within your community,” Goatley said.

Is there a local school that needs adopting? Goatley said that research shows that third- and fourth-grade literacy rates have great predicting values on the path of a child’s life.

Is your church located in an immigrant community? Consider offering English as a Second Language courses (ESL), Goatley said. Research shows that immigrants that have better understanding of the English language are less likely to be exploited in the hiring process.

Is your church located within a community that experiences homelessness? Consider adopting a homeless shelter, Goatley said. Research states that runaways, throwaways (children whose families have put them out) and newly homeless persons are at a higher risk for human trafficking within the first 48 hours on the street.

“Additionally, people should pray and support anti-human trafficking organizations and advocate for anti-human trafficking legislation,” Goatley said.

The national hotline number to report any case or suspicion of a case is 1-888-373-7888.

Why I Became A Social Worker: Story of a Sex Trafficking Victim


It is a question that is often asked of me nearly every single day, and one that I am not sure how to answer. If I were to answer it truthfully, it would surely unnerve many of my clients. At the same time, I am not one to lie and make up a silly excuse. So right now, all I can do is shrug my shoulders and respond with a laughing “I do not know.”

But, that is a lie also. I do know why I became a social worker, and it has to do with one particular woman who made me realize so many things on what not to do as a social worker.

In May of 2004, I was working in a summer camp when I suddenly began having seizures. I was in Boston at the time and was taken immediately to a local emergency room. It was there that I met a social worker who informed me that the doctors and nurses had found suspicious bruises around my body and were concerned that I was being abused.

I remember bowing my head and telling her that no, they had it all wrong. In tears, I told her the true story of where the bruises and cuts had come from. After I was done and after I had cried for nearly thirty minutes, she remained silent before she stood up, looked at me, and told me I was lying. She walked out after that and did not return.

I never spoke of what happened again for another five years, and I did not speak of the horrific trauma for that long because of the consequences. I became depressed, scared, paranoid and finally got to the point where I was willing to take a risk and talk about “it” again.

I met Deborah in August of 2010 after being on a waitlist for nearly a year. She was a counselor at a nearby rape crisis clinic, and I remember the first time we met she asked me why I was so angry and so afraid. I couldn’t answer her, the truth was I didn’t know. I hated her at first, but forced myself to keep going back. Until finally one day, eight months in, I cried, and I told her what had happened to me six years before.

I told her how I had been abducted at gunpoint from my own home, and how three strangers had ambushed me as I tried to get into my home. The safest place I knew. I described how those awful people took me just three miles down the road and sold me into a human trafficking ring. My dignity and my self worth  was carelessly traded for my abductors to gain what they wanted. In exchange for me and my freedom, they each got one dime bag.

 Slowly, my counselor and I developed a stronger rapport. It took a long time, but again, I found myself being able to talk to her, even though I remained guarded about my experience. It was in December of 2010, when things got even worse for me.

I began recovering memories on a daily basis, horrific memories that left me unable to do anything but cry. Deborah saw the difficulty and began asking me to come in twice sometimes three times a week for counseling.

As our talks progressed, I revealed to Deborah one thing that I had not said yet, and it was the game changer. I told her how during those four days and nights, it was not just one or two men who raped me, it was close to a hundred.  Each time someone did, they would have to pay my handlers. I remember the exact phrase I used when Deborah connected the dots. I told her that money was exchanged for me. It was the beginning of the next session she held my hand and told me what she suspected.

I thought that I had been through the worst of it, and I had finally accepted that I had been kidnapped and raped. Now, she was telling me that my situation, while it encompasses sexual assault, it was something else altogether. She sat with me as she explained what human trafficking was and that everything I had mentioned to her aligns with that crime.

I felt as though I had been hit by a bus. While it was just a phrase to me, being a victim of sex trafficking was so much harder to accept than that of kidnapped and raped. I fell into an even darker depression, one where I honestly became scared of myself and my memories.

It was in November of that year, I was asked to meet with some federal agents regarding my case, and the wonderful people at my counseling center offered up their space so that I did not have to be at home. It took three hours to detail everything that happened, I told them at length about my abduction, about how I was sold and tortured in a shed, how I witnessed the death of another woman, and how I escaped.

That interview changed me, and it turned everything around for me. I learned right then and there that I am my own best advocate. During those three hours, when I was reliving the worst four days of my life, I felt myself growing stronger. I felt myself turn from a victim to a survivor.

Since that day, I have done a ton of interviews with law enforcement, both local and federal level. I have learned so many things and been able to educate so many people about the reality of human trafficking. There are few things that are an absolute need to know.

The first. I am an American citizen, I am a white woman living in a middle class neighborhood in the United States. In all of the media I have watched, there has never been a victim of human trafficking that resembles any part of me.The victims are always foreign, unable to speak English, or a child. All this is doing is creating stereotypes. This crime happens to everyone, regardless of color, nationality, age, sex, religion, etc. One of the main reasons I was unable to get help for so long is because nobody was able to see me as a victim of human trafficking. I did not match the picture that the media has given us as the typical victim.

Second. Like every other survivor, I deal with my trauma in my own way. I do get defensive, I do get scared, I do not share every second of that hell. What I do is make sure I am giving it my all. A good example of this is during one of my counseling sessions, Deborah asked me to draw a map of the locations I had been. I hated that map. I would only use black color and would only draw X’s. I hated it, it made this so real for me. One day, I got a hold of it and simply ripped it to shreds right there in her office and yelled at her. I told her to quit pushing me to do that, I hated it. It was the first time I felt emotion in years.  Listen to your survivors, they know what they can and cannot do. Pushing me into drawing a map made me despise going to therapy and I quit for a bit because of it. No means no.

Third. I describe atrocious acts that happened to me, and while it might not seem real to you, the sad fact is, it is my reality. I have the bullet scar on my arm where I was shot at, I have a burn on my backside where a man tortured me. I do not need to prove that these things happened. If I am telling you this, even if you do not believe me, know that I am telling you for a reason.

Fourth: It is hard. Overcoming is hard. And when you are the victim of human trafficking there are very little resources available. There is little support available and very little chance of justice.

Fifth: I think this one is the most important. As a counselor, therapist, doctor, nurse, etc, you never know the change you can make in a person’s life.  You never know how much you can help or hurt one person. Remember that the next time someone approaches you with what sounds like an unrealistic story. Deborah and her ability to listen to me saved my life. She saved others too, because without her I never would have gone to the FBI, my information may have helped solve a missing person’s case. But none of it would have ever happened if someone did not think outside the box and think that maybe, this client in front of you is telling the truth.

I became a social worker because the first social worker I ever met refused to help me. She did not believe me and because of her, I vowed that none of my clients would ever hear those words.

My name is Lauren Obermeier. I am an LMSW and the Director of Social Services at a psychiatric nursing home. My caseload, on average, is 190 people. I am a gymnastics coach, a daughter, an advocate. I am a survivor.

Sex-Trafficking Documentary Receives CSWE Virtual Ovation Award

Alexandria , VA, September 26, 2013 – The University of Texas at San Antonio senior lecturer Robert Ambrosino, director Joe Raymond Vega, and students from an Advanced Policy class are the recipients of the CSWE 2013 Virtual Ovation Award for their film Behind Closed Doors: Voices From the Inside, featured at the CSWE 2013 Virtual Film Festival.

behindThe film seeks to document the impact of domestic minor sex-trafficking in the United States, including interviews with youths and adults who have been trafficked and experts on the issue. The trailer from Behind Closed Doors may be viewed on the Web page of the CSWE 2013 Virtual Film Festival, and Ambrosino’s account of the making of the film is posted on CSWE’s Moving Pictures blog.

Behind Closed Doors: Voices From the Inside was one of nine films selected for CSWE’s first virtual film festival to feature student-produced films related to social work. The festival is part of CSWE’s ongoing efforts to highlight classroom resources for social work educators. Audience members rated the films. The recipients will receive a check for $500.

“This award serves as testimony to the hard work and commitment to social justice demonstrated by our students,” said Ambrosino. “Creation of the documentary was a life-changing event for all involved.”

“We’re pleased to present this award to the team from UT–San Antonio,” said Darla Spence Coffey, CSWE president and CEO. “This project not only underscores the serious and long-term effects of domestic minor sex-trafficking but also showcases an innovative method using documentary film to develop and implement a successful social welfare policy campaign.”

CSWE is a nonprofit national association representing more than 2,500 individual members as well as graduate and undergraduate programs of professional social work education. Founded in 1952, this partnership of educational and professional institutions, social welfare agencies, and private citizens is recognized by the Council on Higher Education Accreditation as the sole accrediting agency for social work education in the United States.

Lydell Thomas
Manager, Marketing and Communications
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