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Kander proposes expanding privacy rights for human trafficking victims

January 28, 2015 at 4:15 a.m. | Updated January 28, 2015 at 4:15 a.m.

Victims of human trafficking may soon be able to qualify for heightened privacy, thanks to legislation supported by both parties in the House and Senate, as well as the secretary of state.

Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander was joined by state senators and representatives, victim advocates and a survivor of human trafficking at a press conference where he shared his plans to expand the Safe at Home program. This program provides address confidentiality for survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking and rape to keep their assailants from tracking them.

The proposal is a part of bills in the House and Senate, and comes on the heels of Senate Committee Resolution 1, which designated January as Sex Trafficking Awareness Month in Missouri. The resolution was sponsored by state Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St.Louis.

"Today in Missouri, people are being bought, sold, pimped and exploited," Kander said. "The Department of Justice recently ranked St. Louis as one of the top 20 human-trafficking jurisdictions in the country. This is shocking, and it is unacceptable."

The program has helped more than 2,500 Missourians, but it is unclear how many more will be helped by expanding eligibility, Kander said. However, he presumed it would pass in the House and Senate and help a large number of people. And even if it is does not help a large number, he said, it is still worth doing.

"My experience with exploitation began at the age of 18," said Katie Rhoades, victim of human trafficking. "I was struggling with PTSD and addiction when I first met my pimp. He offered me a way out. He offered me something different. By the time I realized the true nature of my experience, I felt trapped; I felt like I did not have a way out."

Rhoades explained a team of pimps kept her working as a prostitute with manipulation, threats of violence and coercion, while containing, or controlling her personal information and documentation, such as her driver's license and Social Security card. She was not able to escape her situation until 2002 when she was 21.

"For me, leaving was the scariest part," she explained. "A lot of folks that have experienced human trafficking say that safety after leaving is the biggest concern. A lot of times, many victims won't actually leave the situation because they are afraid of what is going to happen to them after they leave. If a pimp or exploiter finds them after they run away, many times the punishment for leaving is harsher when they come back."

Rhoades manages a peer support group, Healing Action, for women in St. Louis who have been in her shoes. Everyone she works with could have used this program when they left their exploiters, and many could still use it now, Rhoades said.

"Those who are so evil as to buy and sell humans as commodities will certainly seek to do them harm when they are fortunate enough to escape," said Colleen Coble, CEO of the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence. "We know others are still living with the fear of what will happen if they do escape their abusers and those who profit from selling them repeatedly. If we can make an offering and begin to really build infrastructure in our state, which we don't have, to provide protection for victims of human trafficking, we can truly change the world."

Understanding how prevalent human trafficking is in Missouri is not entirely possible because state law enforcement organizations started tracking the cases last year and many cases are classified incorrectly as sexual assault, child endangerment or some other name. Instances of human trafficking also are hard to prove in court because there needs to be evidence of a transaction, which can be hard to find if the person was traded for services, said Emily Russell, a crime victim advocate from the Missouri Sheriff's Association.

"What we are talking about here is human dignity," said state Sen. Bob Dixon, R-Springfield. "For so long, even in the way we define things in the criminal code, we have pointed to the victim and we enabled the problems to continue by pointing to the victim. We need a paradigm shift."

Expanding the eligibility for the Safe at Home program will help not only those who are victims of human trafficking for purposes of prostitution - in many cases children have been sold to feed the addiction of drug-addicted parents and guardians, and this is a form of human trafficking. Children who are rescued from this situation could also be encompassed in the program, Kander said.

Also, people who are sold or traded for labor purposes would be able to qualify for this program if it is expanded, but only if they are documented citizens. Any undocumented citizens who have been a victim of human trafficking will not be eligible under the proposed expansion.


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