Amendment could increase protection of human trafficking victims

Missouri’s Safe at Home program could see an extension that will give confidential addresses to victims of human trafficking.

A proposed amendment to House Bill 1396 would give human trafficking victims in Missouri better protection from assailants.

The bill would extend the services of Safe at Home, Missouri’s Address Confidentiality Program, to survivors of human trafficking. Currently, the program gives a substitute address to survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking and rape.

The program was established in 2007 by Missouri’s Office of the Secretary of State. All participants in the program are given the same P.O. Box number, which is located in Jefferson City, as their “official” address where all their mail will be sent. This P.O. Box will take the place of their residential address on all public records, including their driver’s license, voter registration and public school records.

The secretary of state staff pick up the participants’ mail and “act as a mail forwarding service,” said Stephanie Fleming, the office’s communications director. They send the mail from the P.O. Box to the participants’ residential addresses.

“It allows them to use that substitute address on public records, which is what is really important,” Fleming said. “Their assailants can’t find them by looking them up through voting registration or court records.”

The National Human Trafficking Resource Center has worked on 304 cases of human trafficking in Missouri since 2007, according to their website, and over 1,500 hotline calls.

Rep. Tracy McCreery, D-St. Louis, who is sponsoring the bill, said the resources available to victims depends on whether they are native-born or foreign-born, and what all they have experienced. She said trafficking involves a plethora of crimes that affect victims. For example, a victim might be used for forced labor but also experience physical and sexual violence toward them. Their needs could vary, she said.

“It can take quite a while for the victim to feel secure and safe,” McCreery said.

Nanette Ward, a volunteer board member for Columbia’s Central Missouri Stop Human Trafficking Coalition, said there aren’t a lot of resources available to survivors of the crime. There is no direct state funding for helping victims get back on their feet after they escape trafficking. Organizations around the state are left with the responsibility of helping them build their lives back up, Ward said.

“When you’ve been exploited and controlled by a trafficker, you come out of that situation without anything,” Ward said. “Your life is in the hands of the trafficker. So survivors have explicit needs of housing, medical care and counseling.”

She said survivors have access to the same things other disadvantaged citizens do, such as Medicaid and food stamps, but that their safety is the biggest concern.

The coalition, founded in 2008, helps with extensive outreach for victims and education for the community about human trafficking in Missouri. Ward said they support the amendment, as it is part of a learning curve for the needs of victims that the whole state is becoming a part of.

McCreery said expanding the Safe at Home program would “make the program more encompassing and help victims who live in fear for their future.”

The expansion will not require any additional costs or labor for the secretary of state, McCreery said, as they’ll use funds already allocated to the program.

Fleming said the program currently helps just more than 1,400 victims of domestic violence, rape, stalking and sexual assault, and has helped more than 3,000 since its inception.

“It’s a very simple change that expands the eligibility and helps keep more Missourians safe,” Fleming said.

Human trafficking has been a federal crime since the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000. The act outlines three ways of eliminating and fighting the crime: protection, prosecution and prevention, according to Polaris Project. Despite this legislation, state level prosecution and protection is dependent on each states’ laws, according to the American Bar Association.

“You need to have state laws as well as federal laws so that prosecutors have charges to hang on traffickers,” McCreery said.

She said local prosecutors cannot charge offenders with federal offenses.

McCreery is a founding member of St. Louis Restore and Rescue Coalition, according to her website. The coalition is a collaboration between law enforcement, services that help victims and members of the St. Louis and southern Illinois community that identifies and assists survivors. She has also has worked as a staff member with former Sen. Joan Bray, D-St. Louis, and former Sen. Matt Bartle, R-Kansas City, who helped make human trafficking illegal in Missouri.

McCreery also worked on a task force that researched the needs for state human trafficking laws and services for survivors. She said it is hard to find exact numbers when it comes to human trafficking because it happens under the surface of society. It is hard to see, but it is happening all around us, she said.

“I’ve worked closely with those who have served human trafficking victims,” McCreery said. “It was a need that service providers saw and that I was aware of.”

The bill has passed through both the Civil and the Criminal and Judiciary committees so far.

Edited by Hailey Stolze | hstolze@themaneater.com

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