Last week, I had the honor of speaking to Missourians gathered at the State Capitol for the 8th Annual Human Trafficking Awareness Day. As a member of Missouri’s Statewide Council on Sex Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation of Children and also the Missouri Rights of Victims of Sexual Assault Task Force, which studied human trafficking as part of its work in 2020-21, I am committed to helping educate Missourians about human trafficking.
There are a lot of misconceptions and misunderstandings about human trafficking. What is it? What are the signs? And what can we do about it?
On the most basic level, human trafficking is forced labor. Human trafficking occurs anytime an individual is compelled to provide work or services through the use of force, fraud or coercion. Usually, when we think of human trafficking, we think of prostitution or other forms of sexual exploitation. That certainly is one of the more common, and most tragic forms of human trafficking, but it’s not the only one. There are countless people around the world forced into farm labor, domestic services and even factory work against their will. Sometimes, people find themselves in these situations through the threat of violence. In other cases, the “employer” uses a debt or some other obligation to maintain control. However it manifests, the one common thread is a desperate individual who sees no choice or way out.
Another misconception is the belief human trafficking only happens in other countries. That is not the case. It’s difficult to know exactly how widespread human trafficking is in America, but the number of calls received by the National Human Trafficking Hotline provides some measure. Since its inception in 2007, the toll-free hotline has identified more than 82,000 cases of human trafficking, involving more than 160,000 victims, in the United States. Of more than 10,000 cases reported to the hotline in 2021, more than 75% related to sexual exploitation, such as prostitution, pornographic “entertainment” or forced labor at massage parlors or spas. The vast majority of victims in the reported cases were female, with about one in four being under the age of 18. Remember, these numbers only reflect cases reported to the national hotline. We’ll never know how many victims there truly are.
Missouri is certainly not immune. Included in the 2021 statistics from the national hotline are 240 cases originating in Missouri. In its 2020 annual report, the Missouri Human Trafficking Task Force cited 197 specific cases of human trafficking reported to the Children’s Division of the Missouri Department of Social Services and 385 incidents of trafficking investigated by the Missouri State Highway Patrol. Missouri’s numbers are awful. We have to do better.
Legislation I sponsored last year addresses at least one barrier to combating trafficking, a long standing stigma that treated victims of sexual trafficking as criminals. Under Senate Bill 775, passed in 2021, minor children found to be engaged in prostitution will be presumed to be the victim of a crime, and not the perpetrator. Also, the law gives additional authority to the Children’s Division to take temporary custody of a child when trafficking is suspected. Finally, the bill created Missouri’s Statewide Council on Sex Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation of Children, which continues to look for ways to fight trafficking.
The most important thing all of us can do is speak up. If you suspect someone is being trafficked, or you need help yourself, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888.