Missouri lawmakers push for reforms, education on human trafficking

Rep. Sarah Unsicker, D-Shrewsbury, speaks at a press conference on human trafficking Monday morning. Courtesy/House Communications
Rep. Sarah Unsicker, D-Shrewsbury, speaks at a press conference on human trafficking Monday morning. Courtesy/House Communications

In 2019, there were 69 cases of child trafficking in Missouri. By 2020, that number jumped to 101, according to data from the National Human Trafficking Hotline.

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of reported cases of children in human trafficking situations has significantly increased across the world. Advocates and lawmakers alike have been pushing for more reform, education and resources on the topic.

On Monday morning, Rep. Sarah Unsicker, D-Shrewsbury, held a news conference with local human trafficking experts to provide information about identifying and fighting against child sex trafficking.

During the conference, Unsicker spoke about House Bill 2032, sponsored by Rep. Ed Lewis, R-Moberly, which she and other advocates believe would help victims of trafficking.

Under the current offense of prostitution in Missouri, a person has an affirmative defense to prosecution that he or she was younger than 18 and acting under the coercion of an agent at the time of the offense. HB 2032 would eliminate the requirement that the person be acting under the coercion of an agent and provides the affirmative defense to a person if he or she was younger than 18 at the time of the offense.

"Federal law says anyone under 18 is a victim of exploitation and is not perpetrating prostitution," Jessica Rodriguez, a guest speaker at Monday's conference said, adding this piece of legislation would put Missouri in compliance with federal law.

"Youth who run away both from foster care and other settings have increased vulnerability to victimization, including sexual victimization," Unsicker said. "There are community members from all walks of life, from law enforcement to health care to educators ... who work on the prevention of trafficking."

Unsicker was joined by many anti-human trafficking advocates Monday morning, including Shima Rostami, of Gateway Human Trafficking, who said the increase in reported human trafficking numbers is not always a bad sign.

"In the United States, and also in the international world, human trafficking is identified as a second or third most flourishing criminal activity," Rostami said. "When the numbers increase, it means that the system is doing the good work to identify those victims."

"Hopefully, in years to come in Missouri, we are going to have more survivors," she added.

During Monday's conference, Unsicker also recognized the work the Missouri Highway Patrol has been doing under the Interdiction for the Protection of Children (IPC) which began in 2018.

"When people think of trafficking, they think of kids being kidnapped, and it's much more likely that they are groomed rather than kidnapped," Unsicker said. "Usually, they do it after several conversations with the trafficker and forming a relationship with trust."

Signs of domestic cases of human trafficking are often interpersonal, such as anxiety, depression, lack of trust and extreme fear, Rostami added.

Unsicker has also filed HB 2026, which would establish the "Uniform Child Abduction Prevention Act."

"I fear that even within our own government, we lack a complete understanding of what human trafficking looks like beyond tired tropes and harmful stereotypes," Unsicker said in a news release before the meeting. "Sex trafficking is a serious issue that everyone opposes, but we do ourselves no favors in combatting it when we miseducate the people of this state. I hope providing experts with this platform can help illustrate a better, more holistic picture of child sex trafficking as well as provide steps on how to report it."

HB 2032: Human trafficking


Sponsor: Rep. Ed Lewis

HB 2026: Uniform Child Abduction Prevention Act


Sponsor: Rep. Sarah Unsicker


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