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Advocates: 'Everyone can play a part' in helping human trafficking victims

by Jeff Haldiman | January 9, 2022 at 4:00 a.m.

This week, the Missouri Highway Patrol is joining agencies across the United States and Canada to raise awareness about the problem of human trafficking.

The patrol's commercial vehicle enforcement division will participate in a three-day initiative, commencing Tuesday, which is Human Trafficking Day. The initiative is a concentrated effort to educate commercial motor vehicle drivers, motor carriers, law enforcement officers and the general public about human trafficking, what signs to look for and what to do in these situations.

Human trafficking is illegal exploitation of a person through force, fraud or coercion. It can take the form of sex trafficking, forced labor or domestic servitude. Authorities said human trafficking is not specific to age, race or gender, and it occurs in rural, suburban and urban areas across Missouri. The victims of human trafficking are from all socioeconomic backgrounds and levels of education.

"Our commercial vehicle drivers, motor carriers and law enforcement officers are often our first line of defense against human trafficking," Patrol Superintendent Col. Eric Olson said. "Knowing what to look for and how to respond to these situations is key to rescuing the vulnerable people being exploited."

Authorities said signs of human trafficking are not always obvious, and may include the presence of an older "boyfriend" or "girlfriend;" physical trauma such as bruises, cuts, burns, scars; poor health; coached/rehearsed responses to questions; and homelessness.

The Missouri Attorney General's Office maintains a Human Trafficking Task Force and the Missouri Hospital Association (MHA) has a collaboration with the state to help hospital staff or other health care providers to understand and identify victims of human trafficking.

Law enforcement data indicates about 88 percent of people caught in human sex trafficking have cause to visit medical providers. And, more than 63 percent of those interactions with health care providers occur in hospitals.

The task force has identified more than 80 illicit massage businesses and closed 39 of them.

Service agencies who work to help human trafficking victims welcome the assistance of law enforcement, health providers and others. They said educating the public about this issue is something they are constantly doing.

"I did outreach in the Kansas City area before coming to Jefferson City, and it's more common within rural areas than many people think," said Julie Meranda, assistant director at Redeem Project Ministry. "I worked in the state children's division, and I saw children trafficked by their own parents. We see it through the foster care system and even websites promoting trafficking so you have lots of different forms."

Meranda said they often go into areas where they know human trafficking is prevalent, looking for the signs from people who are scared or being controlled through prostitution.

"We try to build a relationship to help them get on a new path," Meranda said. "We give them choices because they've been taken away from being allowed to chose how they live their lives."

Meranda said there are many myths about human trafficking because of social media.

"It's not necessarily people in chains and cages, there's a lot more mental manipulation and we tend to excuse that," she said. "These people have been beaten down with no willpower to fight back. That makes them easier to control.

"People should research and not just take at face value what they read on social media about this," Meranda added. "Find the real facts, not just hearsay."

Angela Hirsch, executive director of Rape and Abuse Crisis Services in Jefferson City, said they see one survivor a month. They can be men or women and range in age from the late teens to early 40s.

"Most come from larger communities such as St. Louis, Columbia and Kansas City, and several have made it here because, for a lack of a better word for it, they've been dumped here," Hirsch said. "Most are hesitant to take our services and are very distrusting. It takes a while to develop relationships with survivors, but we want them to eventually set realistic goals for themselves to meet."

Hirsch said sometimes they are the people we see on the overpasses and highways in town.

"They could be a survivor trying to get away," Hirsch said. "Statistics show anywhere from 40-60 percent of traffickers turn out to be a family member of the victim so it's hard to get away from those persons."

Hirsch said there is a false stereotype many people have that the majority of human trafficking victims are minorities or non-American citizens.

"That's not true at all, and the majority are not those," Hirsch said. "It's a heartbreaking situation because often times the victims find it hard to recognize they deserve a better life and a say in their own decision- making because they've never had control over their own life."

Although they don't have figures yet for 2021, the Central Missouri Stop Human Traffic Coalition reported in 2020 they served, on an average, more than 60 survivors each year since they began in 2008.

Nanette Ward, board trustee and advocate, said they started with all their efforts going toward education, but very quickly they became involved with law officials, especially the Office of the U.S. Attorney Western for the Western District of Missouri.

"As a volunteer advocate, I am dealing with human trafficking issues 24-7," Ward said. "This week, someone showed up at the Room at the Inn Homeless Shelter in Columbia. A volunteer there recognized the signs that they just exited trafficking. So they reached out to me, and we were able to get the victim into a long-term recovery program. As we worked with her, she broke down in tears, saying just to know she'd be in a safe place meant so much."

Ward said other survivors are referring people they know to them because they know they can trust the coalition.

"This is life-saving work, and we're very thankful we have volunteers and donors helping us with this cause," Ward said. "COVID has made a lot of people desperate, and that's led to degradation and loss of humanity.

"There's no one that should not be concerned and ready to get more education to identify a potential human trafficking victim," Ward added. "Don't think it's just happening elsewhere or to someone else. It's right here in our own community. There's no excuse for any of us to not believe there isn't a way we can make a difference to change the lives of these victims."

If you suspect someone is being forced to engage in any activity from which they can't leave -- whether it is commercial sex, housework, farm work or other activity -- call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline at 1-888-373-7888 or text BeFree (233733). Information is also available online at humantraffickinghotline.org.

If you want to volunteer or donate to the coalition, go to its website, stophumantraffickingmo.com, or call 866-590-5959.

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