Convergence Project – Human Trafficking

This audio story uses a few personal accounts of human trafficking as a way of looking into the problem in Missouri.  Our story was organically found, reported on and produced by Rosie Belson, Vu Xu, Tateanna McCaskill and Kyle Veidt.

Missouri fights rise in human trafficking

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Missouri human trafficking

There are two primary categories of human trafficking: labor trafficking and sex trafficking. According to the FBI, trafficking involves the involuntary subjection of persons through force, fraud or coercion.

“We don’t have a good system for finding the trafficker,” Nanette Ward, who is the director of the Central Missouri Stop Human Trafficking Coalition in Columbia, said. “We can do a prostitution sting… and arrest her. You can’t say ‘Oh I see; we want a trafficker so show up here.’ They are working the system until we get smarter and better.”

The paradox of trafficking is that it is both overt and clandestine at the same time. The practice is prevalent, yet it is hard to pinpoint. This can be due to the traffickers’ strategies. The exploitation and sale of the victims is increasing because traffickers are using the internet. Yet, capturing traffickers is also increasingly difficult since they are able to hide in the shadows of the web.

“People don’t really understand the nature of human trafficking and the reality that no one has to be moved and no one has to cross a border,” Kessaya Speckman, who works at a national anti-human trafficking organization, said. “Because trafficking is a bit of a misnomer, there are a lot of misconceptions about what trafficking is. It’s just about someone being forced to do something against their will for money whether that’s sex or labor of any sort.”

There are both state and federal statutes against human trafficking. Whether the traffickers are tried on the state or federal level depends on the extent of the trafficking ring said Joe Bindbeutel, Chief of the Consumer Protection Division at the Missouri Attorney General’s office. He said often times, the state will hand off cases to the federal level because they are better equipped to handle the investigation.

“A lot more practitioners in different fields are required to go through training on human trafficking,” Speckman said. “Whether it’s healthcare providers or salon workers, there are a lot of different laws that have come forth in the last few years that are aimed at raising more awareness. So there can be a better identification of victims nationwide.”

However, Missouri is taking steps to help law enforcement bridge the gap. Over the summer the Attorney General’s office hosted the first human trafficking training for law enforcement and prosecutors. The training addressed the new statute passed in August concerning human trafficking and how to better work with victims.

Cooperation between law enforcement and prosecutors is necessary when dealing with victims. Often, victims don’t want to give up information about the traffickers when they are identified. This can be due in part to the close relationships victims form with their traffickers. The other reason is that victims are often fearful of their traffickers, and although they can remain anonymous during the initial paperwork, their names will be revealed in court.

“We do try to confer with the victims as much as possible,” Teresa Moore, who is an assistant U.S. attorney, said. “In fact, we really need them to cooperate with us for prosecution, so we try to maintain contact with them.”

Victims are needed to help the prosecutors present clear and convincing evidence. Prosecutors choose to charge the traffickers with lesser crimes like assault or prostitution because they don’t think they have enough evidence to successfully argue trafficking. However, trafficking has a harsher punishment thus can be more effective.

“Arguably, there’s about 10 or 11 elements to a trafficking case where a murder case only has four of five,” So any time you have the burden of proof for numerous items, the prosecutors are always understandably reticent to take that on. But as they do it and as they grow in their comfort level with it, we’re going to see more and more prosecutions under this very important statute,” Bindbeutel said.

Ward said that is easier to prosecute the victim and not the trafficker. For that reason, she said that more measures need to be taken to apprehend the perpetrator.

Training isn’t the only measure being taken to halt trafficking. The Missouri legislature formed a task force to concentrate on the problem.

Missouri’s Human Trafficking Task Force is made up of legislators and citizens. It aims to combat the rise in the illicit sex trade industry that is happening in Missouri. The task force is scheduled to expire at the end of 2016. In the last two years, the task force has held eight meetings to bring awareness to this issue and plans to give a final report in December.

Although legislators and social groups are making efforts to combat the rise in human trafficking, there is still much work to be done.