In early March, a Columbia man and Kansas City woman were sentenced to prison after pleading guilty to selling a homeless minor into prostitution.
MU was part of a coalition that helped make the arrests possible, said Deborah Hume, a Mizzou associate professor of public health. Her research focuses on understanding the scope of human trafficking in Missouri.
Human trafficking “is a crime against people, as their human rights are being violated through exploitative labor or through commercial sex,” Hume said. It can be in the form of forced labor, forced prostitution or indentured servitude. The victims can be adults or children.
“Human trafficking is a very serious crime as it completely removes the freedom and human rights of an individual, and we need to attend to it whether there are 10 cases or 100 cases a year in the state,” Hume said.
Besides Mizzou, the coalition includes the Columbia Police Department and the local organizations Centro Latino and True North. Centro Latino helps Hispanics take advantage of the health, education and cultural resources available in mid-Missouri; True North is an emergency shelter that provides safety and services for victims of domestic and sexual violence.
The coalition received a $200,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to help fight human trafficking in Missouri.
The money helped train police officers, emergency room personnel, social workers and staff at shelters and child advocacy centers to identify and help victims. People were trained “to ask the right questions when individuals come in so they can screen to see whether human trafficking is part of their experience,” Hume said.
The collaborative project increased awareness in the community. The training, combined with outreach programs, led to Boone County forming a task force to develop procedures for identifying and responding to human trafficking among children.
It also led, indirectly, to policy changes. Missouri passed a more effective trafficking law in 2011.
“Although this was a statewide effort, the local coalition was involved in testimony and in meetings,” Hume said.
Unfortunately, officials aren’t always quick to recognize human trafficking.
“We’ve seen prostitution as primarily someone’s choice rather than potentially an area in which someone is being exploited,” Hume said. “Police officers, hospital staff and social-service agencies sometimes think they’re dealing with cases of child abuse, rape or juvenile delinquency. However, they need to ensure they’re investigating issues fully so they don’t miss additional victimization.”
The recent sentencing of the Columbia man and Kansas City woman is a reminder that mid-Missouri is not immune to human trafficking. Data to pinpoint its prevalence statewide is scarce, however.
“I would venture a guess that it is more prevalent in the metropolitan areas in the manner of labor trafficking in the hotel, motel and tourist industries, and in agriculture,” she said. “It may be more prevalent in rural areas than we know.
We all “need to take a stand and say that human trafficking is unacceptable and that it will not be tolerated,” Hume said.
“We need to increase our understanding of what human trafficking is and how it can be prevented, recognized and prosecuted. We’re getting better at knowing how to respond, but we need to get better at prevention.”