Missouri attorney general’s new initiatives look to combat human trafficking

The directives, which drew the praise of groups in law enforcement, prosecution and survivor advocacy, use Missouri’s consumer protection law to crack down on traffickers.

Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley announced a series of initiatives April 3 aimed at combating human trafficking in the state.

The new plan is a three-tiered approach to solving Missouri’s trafficking problem: It establishes a statewide enforcement unit to prosecute violators under a new set of regulations, a task force comprised of advocacy groups, survivors and other stakeholders to provide policy input on the issue and coordinate services for survivors, and a new centralized set of training and education resources for communities and law enforcement.

“I am proud to announce these efforts to make Missouri a leader in the fight to abolish trafficking,” Hawley said in a news release[https://www.ago.mo.gov/home/news-archives/2017-news-archives/ag-hawley-announces-missouri-crackdown-on-human-trafficking] accompanying the announcement. “To the criminals who would exploit the weak, the vulnerable and the oppressed, I say this: Missouri is officially closed for your kind of business.”

The regulations were made possible by a new interpretation of Missouri law that allows the state more leeway in prosecuting trafficking operations.

Under the Missouri Merchandising Practices Act, Missouri’s consumer protection law, the state prohibits any business dealings involving “deception, fraud, false pretense, false promise, misrepresentation, unfair practice or the concealment, suppression, or omission of any material fact.”

The new directives cite this law as grounds to regulate certain aspects of human trafficking, like common financial practices and “debt bondage,” or the use of debtor’s threats to keep survivors under control.

Human trafficking is typically defined as the transport and exploitation of humans for any forced purpose, often labor-intensive or sexual, though individual cases and scenarios vary widely. Victims are frequently women and children, though men are trafficked too.

Of the three components, the enforcement unit is most concerned with criminal justice. A core group of law enforcement veterans and prosecutors will enforce the regulations and provide support to local operations statewide.

“By collaborating with the Attorney General’s Human Trafficking Unit, local prosecutors will be better equipped to seek justice for these survivors,” St. Charles County Prosecuting Attorney Tim Lohmar said in the release.

The task force is more focused on promoting policy solutions and education about the issue rather than enforcement. It will be made up of law enforcement and legal experts as well as nonprofit organizations and survivor advocacy groups. The force will also coordinate local training and educational programs about trafficking for law enforcement and first responders.

Nanette Ward is the co-chairwoman and a founding member of the Central Missouri Stop Human Trafficking Coalition, a nonprofit that has been promoting awareness of the issue in Missouri since 2008. Hawley asked her to serve on the new task force.

Ward, who has seen legislative and training initiatives come and go in Missouri over the past decade, said that it was clear to her that Hawley’s new regulations were designed with the input of stakeholders.

“Just knowing someone in his position was taking such a serious interest, that meant a lot to me,” Ward said. “I gather from all he's doing that he really listened to what others had to say.”

Involving different groups impacted by human trafficking like advocacy groups, law enforcement and trafficking survivors is a key component of effectively combating the problem, Ward said.

“The fact that he has a team of all those groups, I don’t think there’s any way we won’t get something done,” Ward said. “A multidisciplinary approach is good.”

In Missouri alone, 135 cases of human trafficking were reported last year, according to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, an organization which records trafficking statistics and operates services to help survivors. That number was 17th highest in the nation in the hotline’s 2016 report, and a jump from the 69 cases attributed to Missouri in the organization’s 2015 report. The majority of those cases involved sexual violence.

However, due to low awareness of the crime and the reluctance of many survivors to speak out, these statistics are likely much lower than the actual number of cases.

State Rep. Elijah Haahr, R-Springfield, who has sponsored anti-trafficking legislation in the state legislature, said that the problem is compounded by Missouri’s central location within the country.

“There’s a lot of traffic that goes through Missouri from east coast to west coast,” Haahr told KMZU in January. “Because of that, you have a significantly higher occurrence of trafficking than you would expect from a Midwestern state.”

State law differentiates between trafficking for sexual and labor exploitation, but both are felony charges mandating five to 20 years in prison. The trafficking of a child, however, is grounds for life imprisonment.

Although Missouri has had these anti-trafficking laws on the books for some time, Ward said that a lack of training, awareness and legal precedent in prosecuting traffickers has hindered state efforts.

“There has yet to be an institutionalized effort by the state to train law enforcement,” Ward said.

In the absence of state leadership, the bulk of Missouri’s human trafficking prosecutions has taken place at the federal level. Under the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000, the U.S. attorney’s office has led the charge in the state since establishing its Human Trafficking Rescue Project in 2006.

In Missouri, the U.S. attorney’s office is split into Eastern and Western Districts, with the Western District being one of the most prolific for combating trafficking in the country. According to the office’s website, it has prosecuted more human trafficking cases than any other district nationwide.

Hawley’s new initiatives will look to get state efforts on par with those of the federal government by establishing resources and training for all parties involved, like law enforcement, prosecutors and the public.

From a community standpoint, that training and education is crucial to raising public awareness about the problem. Although people may envision human trafficking as a practice confined to third world countries, or as one carried out by pimps in flashy cars, the reality is more complex, and much closer to home.

“There is no single profile,” Ward said. “Parents traffic kids, high schoolers traffic other high schoolers. There are really no boundaries for where a trafficker can have influence.”

Additionally, Ward said that truly confronting the problem will require acknowledging that human trafficking is demand-driven — and that demand exists right here in Missouri.

“We have to be blunt about the fact that there is a demand,” Ward said. “There are traffickers, there are survivors, but the demand is among us. These are people we go to church with, work with, people we pass by in the store.”

That demand, both locally and globally, is what has made human trafficking the fastest growing criminal enterprise in the world, according to the FBI. This explosion has been exacerbated in recent years by the internet, which has become an anonymous marketplace for illegally forced labor and sex, and which has provided traffickers a means of luring unsuspecting survivors.

For citizens, helping to fight this global issue can be as simple as spreading awareness and keeping an eye and ear out for anything suspicious, and calling the toll free hotline at 888-373-7888 to report possible cases.

Edited by Emily Gallion | egallion@themaneater.com

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