“Everyone can play a role” to help victims of human trafficking

This week, the Missouri Highway Patrol is joining agencies across the United States and Canada to raise awareness of the issue of human trafficking.

The Patrol’s Commercial Vehicle Law Enforcement Division will participate in a three-day initiative, starting Tuesday, which is Human Trafficking Day. The initiative is a focused effort to educate commercial vehicle drivers, motor carriers, law enforcement officials and the general public about human trafficking, what signs to look for and what to do in these situations.

Human trafficking is the illegal exploitation of a person by force, fraud or coercion. It can take the form of sex trafficking, forced labor or domestic servitude. Authorities have said human trafficking is not specific to age, race or gender, and occurs in rural, suburban and urban areas of Missouri. Victims of human trafficking come from all socio-economic backgrounds and all levels of education.

“Our commercial vehicle drivers, motor carriers and law enforcement officers are often our first line of defense against human trafficking,” said Patrol Superintendent Col. Eric Olson. “Knowing what to look for and how to react to these situations is essential to saving the exploited vulnerable people. “

Authorities have said that signs of human trafficking are not always obvious and may include the presence of an older “boyfriend” or “girlfriend”; physical trauma such as bruises, cuts, burns, scars; bad health; trained / repeated responses to questions; and roaming.

The Missouri Attorney General’s Office maintains a Human Trafficking Task Force, and the Missouri Hospital Association (MHA) works with the state to help hospital staff or other health care providers understand and identify victims of human trafficking.

Law enforcement data indicates that about 88 percent of those caught in human sex trafficking have reason to see medical providers. And, more than 63 percent of these interactions with health care providers occur in hospitals.

The task force identified more than 80 illicit massage businesses and closed 39 of them.

Service agencies that work to help victims of human trafficking welcome assistance from law enforcement, health care providers and others. They said that educating the public on this issue is something they do constantly.

“I did outreach in the Kansas City area before I came to Jefferson City, and it’s more common in rural areas than a lot of people think,” said Julie Meranda, deputy director of the Redeem Project. Ministry. “I worked in the state’s children’s division and saw children being trafficked by their own parents. We see it through the foster care system and even the websites promoting trafficking, so you have many different forms. “

Meranda said they often travel to areas where they know human trafficking is rife, looking for signs of people being scared or controlled by prostitution.

“We are trying to build a relationship to help them embark on a new path,” Meranda said. “We give them choices because they no longer have the right to choose how they live their lives.”

Meranda said there are many myths about human trafficking because of social media.

“These aren’t necessarily people in chains and cages, there’s a lot more mind manipulation and we tend to excuse it,” she said. “These people have been beaten without any will to retaliate. This makes them easier to control.

“People should do their research and not just take what they read on social media about it at face value,” Meranda added. “Find the real facts, not just hearsay.”

Angela Hirsch, executive director of Rape and Abuse Crisis Services in Jefferson City, said they see one survivor per month. They can be men or women, and their ages range from late teens to early 40s.

“Most are from large communities like St. Louis, Columbia, and Kansas City, and several have come here because, for lack of a better word, they were thrown here,” Hirsch said. “Most are reluctant to take our services and are very suspicious. It takes time to develop relationships with survivors, but we want them to eventually set realistic goals for themselves.”

Hirsch said that sometimes these are the people we see on the city’s viaducts and highways.

“They could be a survivor trying to get away,” Hirsch said. “Statistics show that between 40 and 60% of traffickers turn out to be a member of the victim’s family, so it is difficult to get away from these people.”

Hirsch said there is a false stereotype that the majority of victims of human trafficking are minorities or non-US citizens.

“This is not true at all, and the majority are not those,” Hirsch said. “It is a heartbreaking situation because often victims find it difficult to recognize that they deserve a better life and have a say in their own decision-making because they have never been in control of their own life. “

Although they do not yet have numbers for 2021, the Central Missouri Stop Human Traffic Coalition reported in 2020 that they have served, on average, more than 60 survivors each year since they began in 2008.

Nanette Ward, board administrator and lawyer, said they started with all their education efforts, but very quickly got involved with law enforcement officials, especially the office. of the Western United States Attorney for the Western District of Missouri.

“As a volunteer advocate, I deal with human trafficking issues 24/7,” Ward said. “This week someone showed up at the Room at the Inn Homeless Shelter in Columbia. A volunteer there recognized the signs that they had just come out of trafficking. was able to put the victim in a recovery program. While we were working with her, she broke down in tears, saying that just knowing she would be in a safe place meant so much. “

Ward said other survivors refer people they know to them because they know they can trust the coalition.

“It’s life-saving work, and we’re so grateful to have volunteers and donors helping us with this cause,” Ward said. “COVID has left many people desperate, leading to the degradation and loss of humanity.

“There is no one who should not be concerned and ready to receive more education to identify a potential victim of human trafficking,” Ward added. “Don’t think that this is just happening somewhere else or to someone else. It’s here, in our own community. There is no excuse for any of us not to believe that we do not. there is no way you can make a difference to change the lives of these victims. “

If you suspect that a person is being forced into an activity they cannot get away from – whether it’s commercial sex, housework, farm work, or some other activity – call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline at 1-888-373. -7888 or send an SMS to BeFree (233733). Information is also available online at humantraffickinghotline.org.

If you are interested in volunteering or donating to the coalition, visit their website, stophumantraffickingmo.com, or call 866-590-5959.

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