Recovery programs, law enforcement, legislation work to combat St. Louis-area human trafficking
Human trafficking remains a problem throughout the world, but it is closer to home than we often realize.
“It’s a tremendous issue here in Missouri,” Missouri State Highway Patrol Captain Norman Murphy said regarding both sexual and labor exploitation.
Murphy, who is also on the Missouri Human Trafficking Task Force, joined host Don Marsh over the phone from Jefferson City for Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air, along with Katie Rhoades, executive director of Healing Action, an outpatient recovery program for survivors of trafficking.
“I think there’s several factors that go into that [human trafficking],” Rhoades said. “One is our proximity to a different state and the highway system … so you can move people pretty easily in and out of the St. Louis area.”
According to Murphy, a majority of abducted individuals are travelling by vehicles; therefore it was important for the MSHP to acquire training to handle these situations. Recently, the MSHP underwent an intensive training provided by the Texas Department of Public Safety to better identify victims and teach officers the necessary skills to interact with suspects and victims, including children.
“When I went to Texas and saw this training, I was very skeptical, but the results have been overwhelming,” he said. Since the training started, more than 200 men and women who have been missing or exploited have been recovered nationwide.
Although men are not usually thought of as the victims of sex crimes, Murphy said they are often involved as well.
“[The victims represent] a wide variety – men, women – I don’t really think there’s any certain individual that’s left out of this issue,” Murphy said.
Rhoades agreed with this notion and added her own perspective.
“[For] the majority of the men that we have seen, it started in their youth … or we see it more in the labor trafficking side or in the [LGBTQ] community,” Rhoades said. “We have a pretty high rate of LGBTQ youth, and so when folks are on the streets and they don’t have any other way to survive, they’re more susceptible to folks who are predatory.”
Rhoades also shared a personal anecdote about being trafficked.
“I was homeless at 18 years old, I didn’t have a great relationship with my family,” Rhoades began. “I had a little bit of that 18-year-old hubris, mixed with trauma, mixed with undiagnosed addiction … so I started stripping just to put a roof over my head.
“I fell deeper into it, and then I met a pimp,” Rhoades continued. “He was in the record industry … but folks in the club recognized him … so it gave a little bit of credibility. And he also picked up another girl who I knew as well, and we were going to go to California. We would not have to be in the clubs, we could get away from the drugs, we could work in his record[ing] studio ... and so in my mind, what he was offering seemed better than what I was living at the time.”
However, Rhoades’ California dreams were not reality – she was forced into prostitution. “I was thankfully able to get out in 2002,” she said. Rhoades was 21 at the time.
She spent about five years working through the healing process and now Rhoades dedicates her time to helping others through treatment at Healing Action.
“The first thing that we do is really try to meet them where they’re at … so that we’re not setting them up to fail,” Rhoades explained.
Since November 2015, the program has served over 90 people and has a current caseload of about 60. In the past two weeks, Rhoades said the organization has had nearly a dozen intakes.
“A large majority of the folks who have reached out to us recently, over half of them, it has been spouses who have been trafficking them. So I think there’s a lot of underground trafficking happening already,” Rhoades said.
Legislators are also on board with combating this widespread issue. At the federal level, the president signed the “Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act” into law, which holds website companies accountable for knowingly hosting posts that promote sex trafficking by allowing those websites to be sued. In Missouri, recent legislation will require certain establishments such as restaurants, truck stops, adult entertainment venues, bus and train stations to hang posters with resources about human trafficking.
“A lot of people don’t even know who to call,” Murphy said, urging people to not just “gloss over” the posters. “The posters are just gonna steer people to who they can call for help.”
For the local community, Rhoades said there are a number of ways individuals can get involved safely.
“I think the community can do a lot. Support local services or agencies … but also learn about the issue and what it looks like,” Rhoades said. “Our view about what [human trafficking] looks like is off.”
To report a suspected situation of human trafficking in Missouri, fill out this form, or call 1-844-487-0492. Reports can also be made to the National Human Trafficking Hotline by calling 1-888-373-7888 or texting 233733.
“There is help. You are not alone,” Rhoades encouraged. “There are individuals who have gone before you who have gotten up and gotten out, so there is hope, so please just reach out and allow someone to walk that path with you.”
St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer, Evie Hemphill and Caitlin Lally give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.