Saving Children From Traffickers
Early in June of this year, federal authorities arrested 32 individuals in Missouri and Kansas and charged them with sexual trafficking offenses, including crimes involving sexual activity with minor children. While the arrests were shocking, they were not necessarily surprising. Missouri has earned an unfortunate reputation as a hotbed of sexual trafficking. Our state ranks No. 13 in the nation for the number of calls to the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline, and reports of people forced to engage in sexual activity continue to increase.
In a nationwide survey of state laws combatting human trafficking, Polaris, the group that administers the hotline, chose not to rank Missouri at all, due to shortcomings in our laws. It wasn’t the only group to fault Missouri’s laws. Shared Hope International, a non-profit, non-governmental Christian organization committed to combating sex trafficking, recently released a report card on all 50 U.S. states. Missouri received an F grade.
The good news is this will soon change, thanks to legislation passed this year. Senate Bill 775, which I sponsored and carried through the legislative process, includes several provisions intended to address sexual trafficking, especially in cases involving children. Originally introduced in the House of Representatives as House Bill 2032, these provisions recognize children forced into prostitution, pornography and other sexual activities are victims of a crime, rather than perpetrators who should be sent to prison.
Senate Bill 775 provides that a person won’t be certified as an adult in cases involving prostitution if the individual was under the age of 18 at the time of the offense. Instead, the person will be classified as a victim of abuse, and will be referred to the Children’s Division for appropriate services. Furthermore, the law requires law enforcement to report immediately to the Children’s Division whenever there is reasonable cause to suspect a child may be the victim of sexual trafficking. If law enforcement determines a child is in danger, they may take temporary custody of the child without the permission of the parents. The act also grants exclusive original jurisdiction to family courts in cases involving a child who has been a victim of sexual trafficking or sexual exploitation. Additional provisions create criminal offenses for enabling the sexual exploitation of a child or for patronizing a sexual performance by a child under the age of 18.
To better understand the scope of sexual trafficking in Missouri and to arrive at possible solutions, SB 775 also establishes a “Statewide Council on Sex Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation of Children.” This group will study the issue and develop best practices regarding the response to sex trafficking of children, with a report due to the governor by the end of 2023.
The reforms included in Senate Bill 775 are desperately needed to help bring justice to victims of sexual trafficking, especially children, and to give our state’s law enforcement tools to prosecute those who would prey on children. I’m so proud of the work we did getting this legislation across the finish line and look forward to the day when sex traffickers know better than to come to Missouri. We all have a role to play in ending human trafficking. If you suspect a person is being exploited through force, fraud or coercion you should call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center at 1-888-373-7888.
I always appreciate hearing your comments, opinions and concerns. Please feel free to contact me in Jefferson City at (573) 751-2459. You may write me at Holly Thompson Rehder, Missouri Senate, State Capitol, Rm 433, Jefferson City, MO 65101, send an email to Holly.Rehder@senate.mo.gov or visit www.senate.mo.gov/Rehder.