State Attorney General Josh Hawley is taking the lead on putting a stop to human trafficking — a crime many Missourians are unaware takes place in their own backyard.
Last year, Missouri recorded 421 calls and 135 human trafficking cases, according to the national human trafficking hotline. Those statistics include cases involving people who have been trafficked for sex, labor and unspecified cases.
Hawley held his first meeting Wednesday with stakeholders who work with social service agencies, law enforcement officers, prosecutors, judicial officers and in victim services across the state.
He plans to implement a statewide system of training programs available to agencies, as well as the general public, and form a coalition of business partners against trafficking in the near future.
"Human trafficking is a serious epidemic across the state and the nation," Hawley said. "This is a high priority to this office, protecting the most vulnerable in the state of Missouri."
Among those stakeholders was Paul Banda, a student advocate from Washington University in St. Louis, who had been a victim of human trafficking in 1998. Banda was with a group of boys in a choir when they were taken from the southern African nation of Zambia and brought to the United States to work in Sherman, Texas.
After being discovered years later, he was taken to St. Louis where he has lived since.
Banda got involved with the task force through the school but said being involved is a personal honor to him.
"This initiative is very important because it the first time it is being centralized to bring all party's together to be proactive, instead of being reactive to the situation," Banda said.
He said it's important to share his story because he knows there are others who have been through a similar experience.
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Pam Hamilton, licensed clinical social worker at Cornerstones of Care in Kansas City, has worked in areas involving training, human trafficking and human trauma, and said she is glad to see the attorney general take on this initiative.
"It's a hidden problem domestically and internationally as well," Hamilton said. "Most of us are in denial that it's happening in our state and our communities."
Hamilton notes some key indicators when identifying a potential human trafficking case may include watching for a controlling person, physical exhaustion, whether a person has proper citizen documentation, lacks medical and dental care, or has frequent sexually transmitted infections and forced abortions.
In adolescents, she suggests looking for truancy or tattoos or brands that symbolize ownership or the presence of a controlling boyfriend or girlfriend.
In Hamilton's experience, sometimes it can be difficult to accurately track the number of offenders because traffickers are frequently prosecuted for other crimes law enforcement officers know will stick longer than a trafficking charge.
The penalty for trafficking varies from up to 10 years to life in prison, according to the national conference of state legislators.
Keeping this in mind, Hamilton emphasized the need for a statewide response to human trafficking offenses, which may include a database where incidents of human trafficking are recorded at the state level.
"I think the attorney general's vision is well-defined and intentional, and we are willing to help make this happen," she said.