A young woman wins $8 million judgment from the cult that enslaved her for a decade
Kendra Ross (right) stands with Elizabeth Hutson, who led the legal team that won an unprecedented judgment against a cult that forced Kendra to work for free for 10 years.
This past May, a federal judge in Kansas awarded Kendra Ross nearly $8 million in a human trafficking suit against a nationwide cult and its leader, Royall Jenkins. This judgment is the largest civil single-plaintiff human trafficking award in American history. In addition to the significance of the large monetary award, this case provides important precedent for forced labor cases and exposes common myths and misconceptions about human trafficking in the United States.
In her complaint, Kendra alleged that Jenkins and The Value Creators Inc. (formerly known as The United Nation of Islam), forced her to work more than 40,000 uncompensated hours from 2002 until her 2012 escape from the cult.
Profiting from her unpaid labor, the cult shipped Ross from Kansas to New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Georgia, and Tennessee to work around-the-clock in the cult’s businesses, restaurants, and homes. In addition to dictating when and where members worked, the cult controlled every other aspect of their lives, including where they lived, their education, their diet, and whom they married.
In short, the cult stole Ross’s childhood — and they continue to do so with impunity for many other girls and boys today.
At the age of 21, Kendra gathered the courage and strength to leave the cult during a period of fracturing within UNOI leadership. After moving between relatives’ homes, nonprofit organizations, and shelters, she landed at a specialized aftercare home for human trafficking survivors.
It was here that she decided to file a civil suit against her traffickers, which culminated in the $8 million award and a corresponding memorandum opinion from U.S. District Judge Daniel D. Crabtree. This opinion provides important precedent for forced labor cases around the country and rebuts some of the common myths and misconceptions about human trafficking in the United States.
Myth 1: Human trafficking = smuggling
Human trafficking and smuggling are two distinct crimes. Unlike smuggling, movement and transportation across state or national borders are not required to establish a claim for sex trafficking or labor trafficking (although, as in Kendra’s case, traffickers often utilize constant movement and forced transportation as a means to control their victims). Federal and state trafficking laws focus on the elements of force, fraud, and coercion, which can be established with or without transportation.
Myth 2: Sex trafficking of young girls is the only form of human trafficking
Stories and images of commercial sex trafficking of young girls dominate the news and entertainment industry. However, human trafficking encompasses both sex trafficking and labor trafficking and affects men, women, boys, and girls.
Like Kendra, many trafficking victims in the United States are victims of forced labor. Labor trafficking can occur in various industries and markets, and victims may include domestic servants, hotel and restaurant workers, nail salon attendants, agricultural workers, construction workers, etc.
Myth 3: Traffickers always hold their victims in locks and chains
The Trafficking Victims Protection Act plainly rejects the idea that human trafficking requires physical force, abuse or restraint. The force, fraud, and coercion required to establish a trafficking claim can take various forms — many of which are not readily apparent or visible to the outside world.
In Kendra’s case, the district court’s decision clarifies in no uncertain terms that psychological and emotional coercion are powerful forces. In stating that “defendants directed a regimented cult that forced plaintiff into forced labor through systematic and continued intimidation and psychological abuse,” Judge Crabtree noted that “defendants’ conduct caused plaintiff to fear them and the reprisals they would take against her if she left . . . they yelled at her, and generally humiliated, shamed, and embarrassed her on a regular basis.” He recognized that Kendra “suffers from long-lasting psychological pain and has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder as a direct result from defendants’ conduct.”
The court’s memorandum opinion and final award underscores the important principle that psychological and emotional coercion are invisible, but formidable, chains.
Myth 4: All trafficking victims are undocumented immigrants
Trafficking can involve U.S. citizens (like Kendra), legal permanent residents, undocumented immigrants, foreign nationals, or guest workers on valid visas; all are protected under the federal trafficking statutes.
Myth 5: Trafficking victims are immediately and consistently receptive to ‘rescue’
Trafficking victims’ experiences with their traffickers often make them reluctant to seek help and inclined to distrust individuals in positions of power and authority. It is difficult for trafficking victims to articulate the complexities of fear, dependence, loyalty, and the myriad other conflicting emotions that influenced them to remain with their traffickers.
For that reason, it is critically important for law enforcement, lawyers, and social services providers to have a victim-centered, trauma-informed approach to empower the victim, avoid re-victimization, and restore a sense of his or her autonomy.
Identifying and dismantling these myths and misconceptions will enable law enforcement, the legal community, and the public to effectively identify and combat the scourge of human trafficking.
Elizabeth Hutson, a litigation associate in the Washington office of a McGuireWoods, led a team that represented human trafficking victim Kendra Ross in her successful lawsuit against a nationwide cult led by Royall Jenkins. The team won an unprecedented $8 million civil judgment against Jenkins and the cult.