The Hawthorn Bank Community Room wasn't as crowded Wednesday night as Ramona Huckstep would've liked it to be, but then again, solving human trafficking issues is about individual voices as well as systemic injustices.
Huckstep is the advisor of Z Club, a part of Zonta Club of Jefferson City. She said Z Club is a women's empowerment organization of high school students who meet once a month.
The club is open to any high school student. Huckstep listed support of the HALO House and Living Windows as some of the community activities they're involved with — they being about 70 girls, mostly from Helias Catholic High School.
Raising awareness of human trafficking is another one the group's key projects, and the 15 people who attended an awareness presentation Wednesday night hosted by Nanette Ward heard through videos many individual voices of people caught up as victims in human trafficking networks — U.S. citizens and foreign-born people, men and women, and people of various races, ethnicities and socio-economic backgrounds.
Ward is a founding member, chair of the board and 10-year volunteer of the Central Missouri Stop Human Trafficking Coalition, which Z Club invited to speak. She also had only gotten three hours of sleep the night before because she had been up most of the night with a suspected victim of human trafficking who had been identified in an area emergency room.
"We play it safe" and believe something has happened as investigations develop, she said of acting quickly on tips texted or called in to the coalition toll-free at 866-590-5959.
"This is hard stuff, I know, but I can tell you that in your schools, there are girls who are at risk. There are boys who are at risk, and possibly already engaged in ways that are not good for them," she said, especially to the high school-aged girls in the crowd.
"One of things that's important in talking with our young people is making them aware that you are eyes and ears for your peers, that you will be able to see things, changes, maybe isolation, maybe secretiveness, maybe not hanging out with you anymore, maybe wanting to go somewhere else but not willing to tell you where, maybe spending more time on social media — all those indicators that you can see perhaps before a parent sees, perhaps before a teacher sees," she added.
While people of all ages can sometimes be distant or erratic with people they love, Ward said it's the desire to be loved or promises of new opportunities that traffickers often use to lure in their victims and gain their trust before socially and sometimes geographically isolating them. Traffickers then can exploit them through different manipulative mechanisms such as emotional or financial dependency, existing or intentionally introduced drug addictions, or threats of blackmail and physical violence to victims or their loved ones.
Through the public service announcements and news clips she showed to her audience, Ward wanted to reinforce that human trafficking is not just something that involves people being smuggled in containers across borders. It's a fast-growing criminal industry — perhaps more lucrative now than weapons trafficking — that can happen anywhere in any number of industries, through forced labor or being trafficked for sexual purposes with victims viewed and treated as expendable economic commodities to be exploited through force, fraud and coercion.
"There is no shortage of resources to learn, and there is no excuse not to," Ward said about education on the issues. "Just be sure that you look at things differently," she said of being observant about signs of human trafficking.
"I'm going to fill this room next year," Huckstep said, adding she hopes the people in attendance serve as messengers to spread the word. Ward said she has spoken upon the group's invitation before.
Ward referenced the Missouri Attorney General's Office Trafficking Tip Line — 844-487-0492 — in addition to many other resources, including The Polaris Project — polarisproject.org/typology, which details what human trafficking victims and schemes can look like in 25 industries in the United States.
Missouri legislators have said the FBI named the state as a top destination for traffickers. Attorney General Josh Hawley has said the National Human Trafficking Hotline — 1-888-373-7888 — has received 1,000 reports of human trafficking in the state over the past 10 years.