According to law enforcement, human trafficking is an international problem that exists everywhere, including St. Joseph, which is why an increased effort is being made to identify, prevent and solve those crimes locally.
Earlier this month at the 2019 Northwest Missouri Freight Summit, Sgt. Dan Nash of the Missouri State Highway Patrol discussed the issues of labor trafficking and sex trafficking in front of a group of professional trucking schools, transportation experts and city leaders.
He said the patrol has been working with police departments across the state to share information and work on training to know how to spot human trafficking and how to respond.
St. Joseph Chief of Police Chris Connally is no stranger to the issue, and has served on the Attorney General’s Human Trafficking Task Force for the last two years.
“It’s been a great mixture of learning from each other between not just prosecutors, but always learning from the advocates and really focusing in on that victim-centered approach to addressing some of the challenges,” Connally said.
He said the problem does exist in St. Joseph, as it does in every other community throughout the country.
“Human trafficking, especially with the internet, can be found anywhere. It can be in a small town, it can be in a big city, it can be out in the country,” he said.
In Nash’s presentation, he said the U.S. is not in the top five countries for human trafficking, but our neighbor to the south, Mexico, is ranked as the top trafficking location referenced in international cases around the world, with Canada being the second.
This does not mean the U.S. is not suffering from the problem. Nash estimates that 100,000 children are in the sex trade industry in the U.S. any given year, and hundreds of thousands of people are trafficked in the U.S. when adults and people trafficked for labor are factored in.
In 2016, it was estimated that 1 out of 6 endangered runaways reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children were likely child sex trafficking victims.
Anyone can become a victim of trafficking, no matter their age, financial status, sex or location, but children are typically more at risk.
The $150 billion human trafficking industry is attractive to criminals because of its high income and the fact that it typically carries less risk than drug trafficking, according to Nash.
Sgt. Jason Strong of the St. Joseph Police Department said the invention of the internet and the devices that connect to it has made it easier for criminals to get in contact with children.
“People have access to children today like they’ve never had before,” Strong said. “Parents need to yield caution to that and realize that when they hand their child a tablet or a telephone or something like that, they could become a victim of human trafficking. Somebody could start communicating through that device.”
He advises that parents try and surround their children with positive role models and pay attention to what they do online.
Signs of a potential trafficking victim include the following:
a child looking uncomfortable around an adult they are with
a person seeming to be not in control of their situation
a person who cannot come and go as they please
a person who has irregular work hours
a person who suffers unusual restrictions at work
a person who reports high security measures at work or in their living location
a person offers sexual favors for money
a person has a pimp or “daddy” they refer to
Earlier this year, it became a requirement that places such as strip clubs, private clubs with a liquor permit, hotels, motels, airports, train stations, bus stations, truck stops, roadside rest areas, emergency rooms, urgent care centers and massage parlors put up signs giving information to those who may be victims of trafficking.
Strong said that anyone who believes they may see someone exhibiting signs of being a victim should play it safe and call the police.
“Until recently, people were kind of afraid to get involved in situations and scared to be wrong, but we try to educate people and tell them ‘if you see something, say something,” and it’s that simple, it’s pretty elementary,” Strong said.
Strong said local law enforcement works with other groups and conducts operations aimed at rescuing people from their situations. He said the problem is complicated because some victims do not realize they are victims and avoid law enforcement out of fear that they will be in trouble.
“We’re going to continue to do enforcement and look for innovative ways to address this problem,” Strong said. “We’re always looking for new training and working in collaboration with several different law enforcement agencies and not-for-profits to try and make an impact.”
Strong and Nash both said they believe the majority of sex workers are, in fact, victims of trafficking.
They said law enforcement is beginning to move away from taking punitive action against those who are caught practicing prostitution, and are instead offering resources and treating them like victims instead of criminals.
More information on human trafficking can be found on the Attorney General’s website.