National News

Woman Trafficked by Cult Is Awarded $8 Million: ‘They Took My Childhood’

Posted May 25, 2018 2:33 p.m. EDT

Kendra Ross’ human trafficking story started in 2002, when she was 11 and forced to cook, clean and provide child care for the United Nation of Islam Inc., a cult in Kansas, court documents say.

At 12, she was moved from her mother’s home into a household of female members of the cult. At 15, she was taken out of school and assigned to work in a diner. By 16 she was shipped off to Georgia and served in a home used by Royall Jenkins, the group’s founder, the documents say.

Over the years, Ross was shuttled, sometimes in the back of a delivery truck, to jobs in Newark, New Jersey; New York; Kansas City, Kansas; and Dayton, Ohio. She was physically and emotionally abused, the documents say. After she was forced by a “psychic doctor” in the group to “marry” a polygamist, Ross summoned the courage to finally escape in 2012. She was 21.

On Wednesday, a federal court in Kansas awarded Ross, now 26, about $8 million in damages and restitution. The amount is believed to be the largest awarded to a single plaintiff in a case of coerced labor, and it highlights the scourge of human trafficking in the United States, which mostly affects young women and girls.

In his 57-page judgment, Judge Daniel D. Crabtree, of the U.S. District Court in Kansas, said Ross was subjected to grueling work and fear of reprisals if she disobeyed the defendants, which include Jenkins and the Value Creators, the name he gave to the United Nation of Islam in 2015.

“They yelled at her, and generally humiliated, shamed and embarrassed her on a regular basis,” Crabtree wrote. “She was young, vulnerable and alone during this 10-year period.”

Ross said in a statement through her lawyer that she felt as if justice had been served. But she added, “I’ll always live with the memories of what’s been done to me.”

Martina E. Vandenberg, president of the Human Trafficking Legal Center in Washington D.C., called the judgment “remarkable.”

“It is the largest single victim judgment that we are aware of,” she said.

Ross’ case is also unusual because it involves forced labor in a cult. More than a third of the civil cases in trafficking are filed by domestic workers against their employers or by people with grievances against labor recruiters, Vandenberg said.

Three attempts to call Jenkins on Thursday at the Value Creators were not successful. A woman who answered the phone said that she was familiar with Ross’ case but that neither Jenkins nor the organization would comment. “I am pretty sure no one will be calling you,” she said.

Asked if there was a lawyer, she said there would be no comment.

The judgment offered a glimpse into the evolution of the cult. Jenkins, its spiritual leader, belonged to the Nation of Islam until he split with it in 1978. He said he was abducted by “angels and/or scientists” and returned to earth to create the United Nation of Islam.

He formed communities and businesses in Alabama, Georgia, Maryland, New Jersey, New York and Ohio, and named his community in Kansas City “Heaven.”

The United Nation of Islam controlled every aspect of its followers’ lives, including women’s weight and marriages in which men bid on women. It punished followers by shunning. It created an education system using Jenkins’ teachings and dispensed medical care, the judgment says.

In 2015, the group was renamed the Value Creators, promoting restaurants, health products, agriculture and life coaching.

The Value Creators publishes teachings on its website and Facebook page with what looks like a spaceship hovering over gold bars. Online posts feature writing by leaders called God William and God Ephraim.

Jenkins is known as “Royall Allah” by the Value Creators and “Allah in Person” on his blog and other sites. He has 13 “wives” or “concubines” and approximately 20 children, the court documents said.

The default judgment was made after Jenkins and the other defendants failed to appear for hearings or send lawyers. At a hearing in February, lawyers for Ross said hers was a “stolen childhood.”

Her mother joined the United Nation of Islam on a partial membership in Atlanta when Ross was 2, the hearing transcript said. Ross did odd jobs when she was 9, but after they moved to Kansas City, she began to work full time at 11. While she was shuttled to other states to work, some members said she did not have a “proper attitude” or the “right spirit.” During one period in Dayton, after she was shunned from the group and kept from her mother, she tried to rejoin, the complaint said.

“There was just a fear of being in danger if I was to leave because of just the things Royall would say about people who left,” Ross told the court in February. “Especially people who left and talked bad about him or his organization, that they were all killed in various ways.”

In 2012, Ross asked for help from people who were not members of the group. She was given support at shelters for women and trafficking victims, Elizabeth A. Hutson, a lawyer on Ross’ legal team, said.

She is now working in a restaurant and studying at a community college in an undisclosed location, Hutson said.

She is struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder. Asked in the February hearing why she was pursuing the lawsuit, Ross said: “I mean, they took my childhood, my life and, I mean, I can’t get that back. So I want them to pay for that.”