About three dozen minors in the St. Louis region have been rescued from sex trafficking so far this year, and a nationwide sting last week recovered 149 children, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. But during a public hearing in St. Louis, local agencies who help victims said they’re strapped for resources.
About a dozen people shared insights with Missouri’s newly-appointed Human Trafficking Task Force during the hearing in Brentwood on Tuesday. The Missouri legislature voted unanimously last session for the establish of the committee to suggest legislation that would help victims and reduce trafficking in the state.
“How did she get there? I think that always has to be the question. Not why are you doing this or why did you do that, but how did you get here,” said Christine McDonald of St. Charles, an advocate and author who was sold into sex trafficking as a teenager.
During her testimony, McDonald recommended training health providers to recognize trafficking victims, and to include people on the committee who have experienced exploitation.
Amanda Colegrove, an organizer for St. Louis-based Coalition Against Trafficking and Exploitation, said the highways that run through Missouri make easy ways for traffickers and people who solicit sex to pass through. Colegrove added that it’s likely that labor trafficking is just as prevalent in Missouri, but it’s been harder to find those victims due to language and cultural barriers.
In addition, she said, efforts must be made to identify all victims of trafficking — especially those who do not fit the stereotype.
“We know that men and women, boys and girls are being equally exploited, even though most of the time all we hear about are young women,” Colegrove said.
Though St. Louis has three shelters for women who have been trafficked for sex, there are none for men and boys in the state, Colegrove said.
Dedee Lhamon directs Covering House, a shelter opened last year for female victims of sex trafficking in St. Louis. She told the committee that her shelter is completely full and resources are short.
“We need money. Someone asked me how much it costs to take care of one girl for a year,” Lhamon said. “It’s $4,524.25 per month, per girl.”
Officer Keaton Strong, who serves on a human trafficking task force comprised of local law enforcement agencies in the Eastern District of Missouri, said he often has no place to keep potential victims before officers can bring charges against their traffickers, which would make them eligible for victims’ services.
“They’re back on the streets, back in the hands of traffickers, because we have no legislation set up,” Strong said.
Over the last two years, the number of 14- and 15-year-old victims has gone up “astronomically,” said St. Louis County Police Sergeant Adam Kavanaugh.
“It’s not just a big-city thing. All the girls we’ve gotten have come from Springfield, Joplin, Troy, down in the bootheel. We’ve had Washington University students, we’ve had UMSL (University of Missouri-St. Louis) students,” Kavanaugh said.
Last week, the Human Trafficking Task force held a public hearing in Kansas City. It plans to meet again in Springfield. Rep. Elijah Haahr, R-Springfield, who serves as the committee’s chair, said he hopes they can serve as a clearinghouse of information for nonprofits, advocates and service providers throughout the state.
“They’re all doing it without working together. We’re trying to become a clearinghouse of information, come up with some laws and statutory changes that will help various governmental groups, prosecutors, law enforcement and non-governmental to work collaboratively,” Haahr said.
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