Carrie's Corner: Empowering Victims of Human Trafficking
By Carrie Slatton-Hodges
In Oklahoma, an exact number of victims isn’t known, yet the Oklahoma Coalition Against Human Trafficking (OCAT) estimated during 2011-2019 that 559 individuals in three Oklahoma shelters were victims of trafficking.
Many events related to personal trauma occur in the shadows of life – whether it’s substance abuse, domestic violence, assault, or gang activity, including human trafficking involving sex and/or labor.
Trafficking is an area that doesn’t get much press regarding its impact on the mental health of its victims. Yet, kids not even in their teens can be “sold” by parents to support a substance use addiction. Their traffickers remove all means of independence – income, housing, connections to natural supports, self-esteem, self-worth and more. As a result, even though most female victims are between 18-20 and males are typically older, they can become trapped in this way of life to survive.
In Oklahoma, an exact number of victims isn’t known, yet the Oklahoma Coalition Against Human Trafficking (OCAT) estimated during 2011-2019 that 559 individuals in three Oklahoma shelters were victims of trafficking. In 2019, the Oklahoma Commission on the Status of Women noted that 217 human trafficking victims received one or more services with 1,437 calls to the hotline. In 2020, 161 victims received one or more services with 1,005 calls to the hotline.
Additionally, through its street outreach to runaway and homeless youth, ODMHSAS’ Recovery Supports-Employment and Housing team noticed a need to provide safe housing and support to young people who were either victims or potential victims of human trafficking. Presently, no housing services or programs for transition-age trafficking victims ages 19-25 exist in Oklahoma. They are especially needed in rural areas, where labor trafficking is more common for agricultural purposes.
Seeing a gap that needed to be filled, ODMHSAS’ Suzanne Williams gathered her team to help these young trafficking victims find a way out of this life. Other team members are Andru Dallaly, Project Manager of Housing and Runaway & Homeless Youth (RHY) Programs, and Lauren Garder, Sr. Manager of Zero Suicide and Trauma.
Last spring, they reached out to state agencies and community stakeholders who fight against human trafficking to see how we can partner to address these gaps.
Along with our statewide network of community providers, they created the Rise Above Project (RAP) project, which will provide physical and psychological safety through supportive transitional housing and short-term housing assistance, and connection to an array of wrap-around support services.
A recently received three-year, $600,000 federal grant will initiate RAP, focusing on resources such as safe housing and trauma therapy for any victim 12 and older of human trafficking in 75 of Oklahoma’s 77 counties.
Our lead partner is Restoring Identities after Sexual Exploitation (RISE), a private non-profit providing long-term residence where individuals receive comprehensive, individualized services and mentoring to permanently escape the world of the sex trade and become strong independent, responsible adults.
RISE is one of fewer than a handful of providers of housing services that will focus on young victims of human trafficking in Oklahoma.
In addition to housing and access to mental health support services, program participants also will be encouraged to participate in evidence-based supported employment and education, Individual Placement and Supports, offered by one of our 14 teams across the state. Our goal is to have 80 percent of participants linked to programs to increase income level and/or education level by the end of their participation in RAP.
Other goals are to include permanent supportive housing in the aftercare plan, provide ongoing follow-up services to trafficking victims who secure permanent housing, offer educational training, establish advisory councils and several others.
Marginalized groups are the most often ignored. Usually, people are part of these groups through no fault of their own. We are here to serve the underserved, wherever they are and in whatever walk of life they come from.
Mental illness, addiction and trauma impact everyone. We are eager to address yet another gap in services that has long caused personal trauma in the shadows of life.
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Carrie Slatton-Hodges, Commissioner
Carrie Slatton-Hodges is currently serving as the Commissioner for the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services. Prior to her current role, Carrie served 12 years as the Deputy Commissioner for ODMHSAS, overseeing treatment and recovery services through state operated and contracted treatment providers statewide. Carrie has a strong commitment to mental health and addiction recovery for Oklahomans and believes we all deserve to live a valuable, productive life in the community.