Fighting online trafficking — and winning
by Jan Hester
IT Director for GGRE Services Jennifer Hohman believes in supporting causes that are important to her and her family, but several years ago she encountered one that would change her life.
In 2014, when Islamist militant group Boko Haram kidnapped 276 schoolgirls from Chibok, Nigeria, Jennifer channeled her outrage by participating in a community rally and lobbying legislators to support the Nigerian government in their search for the girls.
She had unwittingly taken the first steps in what would become an arduous, emotional — and ultimately successful — journey into the murky world of online sex trafficking in Houston, Texas. At that time, she had little awareness of the practice and the legal online platforms that enabled predators to sell vulnerable youth.
Over the period of a few months, Jennifer encountered four cases of missing Houston girls who were “one degree of separation away” from her family.
“I concluded that we were sitting on an epidemic that too few were aware of,” Jennifer said.
To raise awareness, Hohman worked with one girl’s father to launch a community outreach campaign, starting with a panel discussion at Houston’s Memorial High School. The presentation was a success, and Hohman and her team were asked to repeat it at other venues.
Unexpectedly, they also got a barrage of pleas for help finding other missing girls.
A Facebook message came to Jennifer in March 2017: “Can you help me find my 16-year-old cousin? I have her missing person’s report and a BackPage ad that I think is her.” Jennifer reached out to her network; they quickly located the girl and called in the Houston Police Department.
“We rushed to a hotel in an area of Houston known as a trafficking hub,” Jennifer said. “She was released to a parent but disappeared within 24 hours. I was shocked to find out this is common.”
The system is poorly equipped to deal with such children. They found the girl again but had nowhere to take her until a friend helped find a psychiatric hospital that could keep her for a couple of weeks.
“I fell in love with this child,” Jennifer said. “She had given up on her dreams. She was lured, groomed, brainwashed and coerced, told by her kidnappers they would harm her family if she didn’t return to them.”
Jennifer worked to create Houston Area Against Trafficking, a network of nonprofit organizations, and the Houston 20, a group of influential Houstonians, to raise funds to create emergency assessment centers, increase capacity in long-term aftercare facilities and increase outreach and intervention in areas where trafficking occurred. Jennifer and ConocoPhillips Stakeholder Engagement & Social Responsibility Director James Viray regularly attend meetings of The Oil and Gas Trafficking Advocacy Group (OCTAG). OGTAG’s members include Apache Corporation, Enbridge, Guardian Solutions, Schlumberger, OVS Group, Atlas Sand, Trumball Unmanned and Environmental Resources. In addition to ConocoPhillips, volunteers from Shell, the Society of Petroleum Engineers and other organizations have been actively involved in OGTAG’s efforts.
To help combat trafficking nationwide, ConocoPhillips supports Truckers Against Trafficking, a “mobile army” of trained transportation professionals that supports law enforcement by recognizing and reporting incidents of human trafficking.
Jennifer and her group also tracked federal legislation. She was shocked to learn that it was not illegal to sell women, children and men online for sex.
During 2016, bills were introduced in both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. Her team partnered with advocacy groups throughout Texas to urge legislators and the public to get involved.
“It seemed certain that one of these bills would pass,” Jennifer said. “Who in their right mind would not agree that our children and citizens needed to be protected?”
Jennifer had a crash course in the realities of public policy. On February 26, a revised bill acceptable to both sides, FOSTA SESTA H.R. 1865, was introduced into the House Rules Committee. The bill passed both houses of Congress with overwhelming bipartisan support.
“Throughout the process, we were reminded that, without lobbyists, we didn’t stand a chance,” Jennifer said. “This story demonstrates that citizens can advocate and partner with trusted legislators to demand that our elected officials do the right thing.”
Hohman and three survivors were invited to the April 11 White House signing ceremony. Jennifer opted not to participate in the Oval Office event but to accompany the group to the West Wing roundtable hosted by Ivanka Trump.
“I thought they should get the focus, not me, so I hugged each of them and watched with tears as they headed into the Oval Office — with strength, perseverance and determination!”
On the same day, the sex trafficking site BackPage was seized by the federal government. Soon after, Craigslist personal ads and many other websites were taken down.
“I’m often asked how I do all this,” Jennifer said. “I respond with ‘how can I not?’ I work for a company that is supportive and provides a 9/80 work schedule that enables me to be active in my community. Helping to create a safer place for children is the best way to spend my time off!”