On a mission to stop violence against women
By Cari Hachmann/ The Portland Observer
Red balloons drifted into grey skies over the tree-tops at Rocky Butte in memory of Yashanee Vaughn.
Family and friends gathered last week to say a few words and demand justice for the 14-year-old girl who two years ago went missing and was found murdered by her 16-year-old boyfriend Parrish Bennette Jr.
For four months, the teen's family searched for their daughter, only to find bitter closure when defense attorneys later released where their client, Bennette, had dumped the girl's body after he shot her in the head in the bedroom of his northeast Portland home on March 19, 2011.
Though Bennette pleaded guilty to first-degree manslaughter and was sentenced to 18 years in prison, Vaughn's family is still seeking justice for the silence that surrounded the whereabouts of their child.
"How can you know where a body is and not say anything?" said Yashanee's grandmother Reynelda Hayes. "That's cruel and cold." Her family is working to pass a law in the Oregon Legislature that would require attorneys to release information early in the case of a missing person.
When police efforts were not enough, Vaughn's family turned to the National Women's Coalition Against Violence and Exploitation (NWCAVE), a Vancouver-based non-profit that help families locate missing children as well as inform and educate the public and prevent violence against women.
"There was a beautiful girl with a smile that needed to be found," said the group's president and co- founder Michelle A. Bart, about the support she and her organization have continually lent Vaughn's family and friends.
Bart said Yashanee's story is a reminder to the dangers faced by women, particularly teenagers, who fall victim to violence, sex-trafficking, and exploitation. Her story is motivation to continue the campaign to end violence.
Three other families of northwest teens are currently searching for their daughters. Raven Furlong, 17, of Aurora, Co. vanished in February; Kara Nichols, 19, of Colorado Springs, missing since October; and Kayla Croft-Payne,18, missing from Washington State since November.
NWCAVE believes there is a link between the missing girls: The three young women had profiles on a questionable modeling networking website prior to their disappearances.
"We have no proof that they are related," said Bart. "We are just a non-profit," but the figures are hard to discredit, she said. "When you have so many missing girls throughout the country and all have one common denominator of a website, and not Facebook or Twitter, we all have that, but a modeling site and profiles exploiting themselves, that's a red flag."
According to Bart, there have been 13 to 15 cases across the country linked to the modeling website Model Mayhem, where girls who have posted profiles have gone missing, been found dead or survived to tell their story. The website received an "F" from the Better Business Bureau. She believes a federal Investigation is warranted.
While NWCAVE lacks the investigative capabilities of law enforcement or the FBI, they make up for it through their dedication, time and effort. "These three cases have come to us for help because nobody else would listen to them," she said.
The organization is keeping in contact with the girls' families. They are receiving tips, following leads, getting the word out, posting photos and most importantly, not letting the girls leave the public's eye.
"We owe it to these families to do whatever we can do to find out what's going on," said Bart.
Florida- born Bart spent 26 years in Los Angeles as a media consultant and publicist. Through her public relations company, Helping Heroes, she represented and lent her communications expertise to politicians, entertainers, large humanitarian organizations and eventually families of missing children.
In 2008, Bart moved to Vancouver to treat an on-going medical condition. At age 17, she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia. After a recent hip replacement left her on disability and depressed, she struggled to get back into the swing of things.
As she takes on the latest chapter of her life, Bart said her complaints are only relative to those of families with missing children, "These kids need a voice and these families, it's like we are their only hope."
Too often, police give up due to lack of time or resources, and faces of missing are filed with the other 56,000 cold cases that sit in the basement of the Portland Police Bureau.
"We have a dream of a world without violence and if I can play a factor in that, that's what I want to do," she said. "It's the only thing that keeps me from forgetting about me."
In 2009, Bart created her non-profit group as a way to raise awareness to a broad range of issues like domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking, bullying and hate crimes. She also sits on the advisory council for The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
Preventing violence against women– kidnapping, rape and domestic violence– starts with educating the young, she said.
"We are living with predators right under our roof," said Bart, pointing to the digital world as an example, where just about everyone has access to a computer and the internet.
Bart said many parents and teachers agree that being honest with children and giving them the armor to face danger is a better alternative than ignorance.
"Why wait until something happens?" she said. "Once something happens, it's too late."
Often adults and the institutions we raise our kids in are not open to talking to children about the harsh realities of crime.
"Things get stopped at the door," Bart explained, recalling how she was once called to conduct a Human Trafficking lecture for a Vancouver school, but was told "no" by the district's superintendent.
Bart says there is a way to talk to kids. Take her six-year-old niece for example. The young girl has been attending human trafficking conferences with Bart since she was barely old enough to walk.
In case of a dangerous situation, her niece is armed with knowledge: Don't talk to strangers, run from a stranger, yell fire and never yell help. "I don't hold back," said Bart. "They are never too young." If talking fails, try coloring books and puppet shows.
"Girls especially," said Bart, "Should know how they should be treated in this world," so as teenagers, "They're not going to try to reach for something or go looking for love in the wrong places."