A mission in Cambodia assisting girls who have been rescued from sex slavery and an awakening to the problem of child sex trafficking in the United States led Opal out of retirement. She has made it her life’s mission to educate the public and government officials about this growing problem, with a focus on warning signs and prevention.
Tell us a little about your background…
I was born and raised in Wichita, Kansas. My mom used to say that I got my first tricycle and headed for the border. As early as six years old, when people would ask what I wanted to be when I grew up, I always said “a Californian” even though I had never been there.
I moved to California by myself when I was nineteen. I had $40 and did not know anyone but I was determined to be “a Californian.” Our family was poor but my folks brought me up with good values and I always knew I needed a college education. Ultimately, I went to 13 different colleges over 26 years before I finally graduated at age 40.
I tried my hand at several careers, including escrow, banking, and communications. In 1985, I was working for Motorola selling communications equipment when my husband’s job required that we move to Utah. It was a very difficult time, as I simply could not find employment. I had to completely reinvent myself, ultimately landing a job (for half of my normal pay), which later turned into a career in International Marketing. By 2000, I had become Vice President of Williams Worldwide Television and ultimately traveled nearly three million miles.
When did you start to think about making a change?
In 2000, my right balance nerve completely died as a result of my Meniere’s Disease, a disorder of the inner ear that I had been diagnosed with at the end of the previous year. This made international travel very difficult as I struggled with acute vertigo. At the age of 54, I retired and focused on developing coping skills to overcome acute vertigo. I underwent three shoulder surgeries and two knee surgeries as I struggled to relearn balance. Today, I still live every day with vertigo and sounds in my head but I have learned to block it out and I have learned a whole new way to balance using my eyes and my ankles. There are some amazing medical specialists helping older people learn to cope with vertigo and balance issues and I was fortunate to have one of the best doctors in the business.
I was retired from 2000 to 2009, during which time I became a glass fusing and glass enamel artist. I learned to create large acrylic paintings and was fortunate enough to have my work in several galleries in Southern California. It was a time of family and personal renewal as I was privileged to care for my mother-in-law in her last days. She was a fine human being—and my best friend.
In 2009, my husband, Del, was diagnosed with kidney cancer on his only functioning kidney. After a very difficult surgery, he had a near death experience where he was unconscious for a very long time. Ultimately, they gave him 10 pints of blood because he was hemorrhaging. I watched the entire episode; it was the most frightening experience of my life. As a result, Del and I chose to completely reevaluate our priorities. God had been generous to us; while we were not rich, we were successful in business and had our needs met. It was time for us to give back.
The church we were attending had a mission in Cambodia that rescued girls from brothels and sex slavery. I had seen a lot of poverty in my travels but I was struck by the fact that young girls could be sold into sex slavery. I sold my artwork to fund my travel to Cambodia—I wanted to see the problem first hand. I spent six months preparing, learning everything I could about sex slavery, Cambodia, and Rapha House International, the organization I would be volunteering with.
Rapha House rescues and restores girls as young as 5 from brothels and exploitative situations. It is unique in that the organization cares for these girls in safe houses until they are 18 if they can’t locate her family and make sure it is safe for her to return home. While I was in Cambodia, I was able to assist in helping get a four-year-old girl out of a prison (she was born there) and I also met a young girl who had been severely burned by acid and had her arm attached to her chest. When I came home, I scoured the Internet for four months to find a surgeon in Cambodia who would provide her with free surgery—she regained the use of her arm. I also volunteered my administrative, legal, and executive services to Rapha House and assisted them with fundraising. I eventually joined their Board of Directors and was appointed Director of Development, a role I sill serve in today.
What is your next act?
I am the President and CEO of Million Kids, a nonprofit that combats human trafficking in the US—now the fastest growing crime in our nation. The name is based on a sobering statistic: According to UNICEF, over one million kids are trafficked worldwide each year. We are committed to helping rescue and restore victims so they can find lasting freedom and lifelong dignity. We are equally committed to educating the public about the warning signs, and prevention, of sex trafficking. We work with local law enforcement and concerned citizens, businesses, and organizations.
Since I started at my kitchen table in 2010, at the age of 64, I have trained tens of thousands of government officials, corporations, civic leaders, school administrators, faith-based organizations, parents, and teens in my work with Million Kids. I conduct church lectures in the evening and church conferences on the weekend. I speak at AAUW (American Association of University Women), Soroptimist, Rotary Clubs, Chambers of Commerce, Lions Clubs—anywhere I am invited. I log over 50,000 miles a year on my car at my own expense, taking my message all over California and to other states as well.
I am also a Training and Outreach Coordinator reporting to the Riverside County Sheriff Department and supporting the Riverside County Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force, a unique role for a civilian. I have two goals: First, I educate the public to PREVENT child sex trafficking; and second, I train the public to recognize instances where someone is being groomed and recruited and to report a lead so our Task Force can intervene.
How did you become this deeply involved in human trafficking?
In 2010, my church pastor, Kerry Decker, and I began to recognize that child sex trafficking and labor trafficking were becoming issues here in the U.S. Quite honestly, I did not want to get involved, mostly because combating human trafficking in the U.S. can get quite political and I wanted no part of that. I also think I did not want to believe that it was really happening in our great country. Remember I am retired, and I knew how all-consuming this cause would become for me—and it has!
Let me explain about the politics. A predator will pick up a young girl in Corona (CA) and take her to Rialto (CA), only 20 miles down the road. But the crime will involve the Corona Police Dept, the Riverside County Sheriff, the Rialto Police Dept, and the San Bernardino County Sheriff. In another two hours, the girl will be moved to Long Beach (CA) and now the Long Beach Police Dept and the Los Angeles County Sheriff will need to get involved. Not to mention the FBI, Homeland Security, the District Attorney, the U.S. Attorney, Probation, Child Protective Services, and most likely one or more victim services providers.
In 2010, Aron Wolfe, a Riverside County, CA Sheriff Deputy who had applied for a grant to start a human trafficking task force, was granted enough funds to pay for one deputy. Keep in mind that Riverside County covers 7,200 square miles and includes very large cities and a thriving agricultural community with seasonal migrant workers. This deputy asked if I would be their Training and Outreach Coordinator, with the understanding that I would have to raise all my own money and pay all my own way as he had limited resources but seriously needed my help.I agreed—so much for retirement!
I am an avid researcher and I began to learn everything I could about US human trafficking, labor trafficking, migrant trafficking, agriculture trafficking, and child sex trafficking. To this day, I still read every human trafficking case, every child sex trafficking case and every child pornography case in the U.S each day. I do that because now I operate a private training blog where I share new information with several law enforcement officials in several cities so they can stay current as predators change their MO (modus operandi) across the nation.
I started my outreach work in the Coachella Valley portion of Riverside County, as I believed the issue of human trafficking had to do with foreign nationals and the seasonal migrant population that works in this agricultural community. I trained the Dept of Agriculture, The Dept of Labor, and every Code Enforcement officer for the County. We were looking for vacant houses that could be made into temporary brothels, Coyotes (human traffickers) abuse of desperate migrants seeking to make a living in the U.S., preying on vulnerable female migrants, often forcing them into prostitution to pay their debt bondage.
As I came to find out, foreign nationals are only a fraction of the victims of human trafficking in the US: 3 out of 4 victims are actually US citizens. Why do gangs and drug cartels get involved in human trafficking? It’s a huge money maker for them. To understand why, watch this brief video.
How did you develop your strategy for combating human trafficking?
In 2012, two events helped me develop my strategy. Early in the year, Rapha House sent me to Cambodia as the Acting Country Director for four months. It was a tremendous education for me to live on the ground in a third world country and to be responsible for over 1,000 kids, many of whom had been exploited, trafficked, or violated. It was also interesting to negotiate the legal aspects of the organization with the UN and the Cambodian government.
While In Cambodia, I watched a performance by 600 kids who were part of the Rapha House Kids Club—a club for high risk kids where Rapha Houses teaches English, morals and ethics, self-esteem, and how to stay safe from exploitation. As I looked out at the sea of beautiful faces singing and having a great time, I realized that while mission groups often go to foreign countries and teach kids about sex trafficking, we did not have such a program in the U.S. Perhaps it was because child sex trafficking was new to us or perhaps we simply (like me) did not want to believe it existed.
When I returned home, I had another life changing experience that solidified my strategy for preventing child sex trafficking. One evening, I was speaking to 60 people at a public forum about sex trafficking. That day, a case had appeared in the news about a girl who was trafficked in Riverside—I included the news video in my presentation. In this case, a beautiful 15-year-old girl was befriended and recruited by another girl in their high school and sold into a life of prostitution to the Rolllin 60s Street Gang in Los Angeles.
This really got my attention—this is the first time I had seen another girl involved in a case or recruiting taking place in a high school. Today, unfortunately, it’s an all too familiar scenario.
After I showed the video and ended the lecture, two women came up to me and wanted to speak alone. The younger woman, who was with her mom, told me that the girl in my video washer daughter, then shared her family’s anguish and desperate search for her missing daughter. It took nine months, but our Task Force was finally able to locate her daughter in the Los Angeles area (about 60 miles away); they went undercover and rescued her along with six other girls.
This family’s story helped me realize how critical it is to help parents and teachers recognize the signs that a child is being groomed; this way, we can prevent the child from ever being tricked into sex trafficking. This story also helped me understand the pain and anguish the family endures in these situations. These are extraordinary individuals who fought hard to find their daughter and help her rebuild her life. They are my heroes.
These two experiences in 2012—first in Cambodia, then in the US-led me to write a prevention presentation program called “The Love Trap,” which I have delivered to thousands of parents and teens. A portion of “The Love Trap” is to help parents and teens understand about “bottom girls.” A bottom girl is a girl who has been with a pimp or part of a gang and is totally loyal to the gang. We now know that gangs are enrolling these girls into high school for the sole purpose of recruiting other girls into the life of prostitution. This is not a hobby for this girl. If she does not recruit new victims to become prostitutes, she will be put back into prostitution herself. To learn more, read this article.
What are the warning signs parents and teachers should watch for?
When a teenage girl goes off the rails, so to speak, parents look for drugs or pregnancy. Most parents don’t understand shame-based behavior or know how to respond to it. It can happen to both boys and girls who are being sextorted (blackmailed with an illicit photo) or being pressured into sex trafficking.
The child will change suddenly. They cannot sleep. They either shut down and won’t talk (usually the boys), or they become highly emotional and reactive (usually girls). They go to school but can’t stay. They can’t sleep. They may try cutting. Often, they attempt to run away and come back. It is critical that parents and school administrators recognize these signs and that the teen get into counseling quickly; parents must also look at any and all of their child’s friends and relationships, especially if their daughter has a new girlfriend.
What is your focus when speaking with teens?
I teach teens how not be “low hanging fruit.” The four most vulnerable populations for sex trafficking recruitment are: foster kids, homeless kids, runaway kids, and pregnant teens. Predators also target kids who spend time on apps like Kik, in video chat rooms like Chatroulette or Omegle , and who play in video games with chat rooms and sub-chat rooms. Victims are often lured, coerced, tricked and seduced into believing they are either going to be “loved” or they are going to make some easy money.
Predators prey on kids they can control and manipulate by making them believe they are “damaged goods”—that what they have done and who they are is so bad that no one will ever love or accept them again. Pimps and bottom girls will lure the teen into either sharing a naked photo or getting them to engage in some illicit sex act and then film it.
The shame, guilt, and self-degradation will make the teen an easy victim to recruit. Worse, most parents will react with further berating, making accusations or other judgmental statements which only serve to push the child further into the shame based box—making them believe they have few alternatives as they are already ruined.
You have strong concerns with social media and online gaming—can you explain?
We are at a unique time in history. Never before have so many strangers been able to access, groom, recruit, and exploit our young people. When you hand a child a smartphone, if they are typical in their usage of it, they will be exposed to more strangers (possible predators) than you have known in your entire lifetime.
I believe that we have developed an e-chasm (electronic chasm): We have an entire generation of kids who have never NOT known the Internet and can access it 24/7; we also have many parents who are technophobic. Kids today can download apps and upload naked photos but do not have the cognitive reasoning or maturity to anticipate the consequences when that photo is sent to their newfound friend. This often takes place in the back seat of the family car in full view of the parents, who are totally powerless.
Parents used to set the standards for establishing a child’s attitude about morality, spirituality, and sexuality. Now, total strangers provide input and influence to our child. Many of these people you would never invite into your home if you were face to face with them. Handing a 12-year-old child a smartphone without having an open, honest, and exploratory dialogue is like dropping your child off at a strip club and hoping they meet the “nice” people there.
The most important message I want to take to teens and parents across the nation is about “Digital Morality.” Today, kids play video games in a world of violence and sex, and occult and sorcery—while being groomed by the strangers in their guild. To make it even more interesting, players need the approval of the guild. In Grand Theft Auto V, for example, players can pay bitcoinsfor “first person experience” sex with a prostitute—then must kill her so their team does not find out. Most teens will tell you that they do not experience guilt for their actions: “It’s a game, it’s what you have to do to win.” They will tell you that sex on the Internet is not sex. Killing is not killing. There are no morals on the Internet. They want adults to believe that it is OK to live in a world where there are no consequences for their behavior. Then we expect them to transition back and forth between fantasy with no consequences and reality where morality is expected. I believe this is a concept that must be discussed in all our homes.
For an in-depth look at this issue, watch What’s Your End Game: Winning in the Digital Age – Internet Addiction and Human Trafficking.
What are your biggest challenges in the work you do?
My number one challenge is fundraising. While there are many state and federal grants, in addition to many generous nonprofit organizations, focused on supporting victims of sex trafficking, there are few resources for education and prevention—so the child is never victimized in the first place.
I am grateful for the individuals, civic organizations, and faith-based organizations that help support our work. With my husband’s medical bills, I can no longer simply subsidize this work myself. I am a Notary Public and I use the income from that business to help purchase the gas needed to keep this moving. It is a crazy retirement. I make three presentations a day and then run out and “notary stamp” something to make it all happen. I am proud that Million Kids has a Gold Star rating on Guidestar.
The next challenge is how to expand and multiply our work. I have attempted to educate volunteers and in some cases that has been effective, but it takes a special kind of person to do this work. Most people are interested and want to get involved but have many other commitments and may not wish to do public speaking. This work requires judgment, as many people will want to tell you their personal story. Sharing stories publicly is a bit tricky as several people in the audience may have been previously sexually violated; while you want to be accurate and clear in helping the individual understand the impact of the crime, you do not want to be salacious or traumatizing.
You recently published a book about sex trafficking and how social media and online gaming contribute to the problem. How did this come about?
As I have worked intensely in this business for over five years now, I have watched as “regular kids” are being coerced into sextortion and sex trafficking. When I talk to schools, I try to get as much from the teenagers as I give. While I am old enough to be their great grandmother, I find that kids will talk to you if you will only LISTEN to them—no matter your age. My work in the schools is what prompted me to write my book, SEDUCED: THE GROOMING OF AMERICA’S TEENAGERS.
How supportive has your family been?
I have the finest most supportive husband in the whole world—we’ve been married for 40 years now. Del is intelligent, loves to help me research, and is my partner in every sense. He has a wicked sense of humor and the patience of Job. He is the most generous man I know. We both love history, archeology, psychology, and travel. Even though he is ten years older than me and is on dialysis (from kidney cancer), he still spends long hours supporting me in my work and accompanying me to presentations. Some days he sits in his chair and sleeps while I work. But he is there and it means everything to me.
Del was previously married; I have two grown stepchildren, who have pretty well got me trained. We get along great, although they live far away. I have three grandkids and six great grandkids. And I have already told their moms that if they give their children smartphones, they’d better not tell me about it! We all keep in touch by email and phone each other several times a week.
My kids are very supportive of my work. They tell me they are proud of me and I am truly proud of them. I am also fortunate to have amazing friends who cheer me on; many used their influence to open the doors for me in the early days.
Do you ever think about giving up? What keeps you going?
You bet. I am 69 and some days, after 6 straight presentations to hundreds of kids or some public organization, I am dogged tired and I wonder what on earth I am doing. I am always behind and overcommitted. I have an excellent therapist—one cannot do this work without it.
Once you have sat with parents of a missing teen or taken a call from a panicked teen who is being blackmailed with a naked photo on the Internet and you know how this could end up, well, there is just simply no walking away. All it takes is one stupid mistake and the life of a teen and their family can be devastated for a lifetime. If I can educate them first and avoid the heartache, then it has all been worthwhile.
What advice do you have for women in midlife?
Do what you believe in and know that you don’t have to live long enough to see the results. Do what is right and everything else will find a way. Time is precious. Do what is important to you. Love and cherish others that God has placed in your life and be grateful for every chance to laugh together.
One more thing: Cosmetics don’t work. At some point, you learn that smiling hides the wrinkles.
What about advice for those interested in helping combat child sex trafficking?
Learn everything you can about sex trafficking, sextortion, revenge porn, predators, the Internet (apps, chatrooms, MMORPG—multiplayer online games). Much of this you can get by following Million Kids (Riverside) Facebook page or reading my book SEDUCED: THE GROOMING OF AMERICA’S TEENAGERS.
You can also combat child sex trafficking by helping likely targets: Help a foster child, support an emancipating foster youth, help homeless kids, set up runaway intervention programs, help pregnant teens. Learn about which social media apps predators use and how to educate teens to stay safe.
Set up education programs for women’s groups, men’s groups, youth groups. Start a dialogue with your own child or grandchild. If your child were playing soccer, you’d participate; so ask them about their video games and try it out with them. Talk to them about what they are seeing and experiencing in these games.
There are several movies about sex trafficking on YouTube and Netflix. But don’t be blown away by the violence and sexual pornography. Look at the psychology of grooming and understand ways to keep kids safe. Look at Polaris and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Look at Rapha House International.
Contact Opal S. Singleton at Opal@MillionKids.org
Website: Million Kids