Human trafficking targets young teens, especially runaways, and is a pervasive threat in this country, a speaker told the quarterly Coordinated Community Response meeting in Salem last week.
At the meeting, sponsored by the Russell House’s Dent County Outreach Office, the board president of the Lake of the Ozarks Stop Human Trafficking Coalition sounded a warning to parents to watch their children’s behavior to keep them from becoming victims of trafficking.
Human trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery. A trafficker uses force, fraud or coercion to control another person for the purpose of engaging in commercial sex acts or soliciting labor or services against his or her will. There were 178 cases in Missouri reported to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline in 2018.
Speaker Chris Gansemer said her group, now in its fifth year, is working to raise awareness in the lake area and in surrounding communities.
“As a coalition we are concerned about our children,” she said. There are about 400 homeless children in the Camden County school district, with many bouncing from home to home, sleeping on friends’ couches.
“Any one of them is ripe for the taking and could be forced into a situation that could lead to years of exploitation and abuse when all they wanted was a warm place to lay their head.”
She offered no information on trafficking in Dent or Phelps counties, but said it is thriving at the Lake of the Ozarks, as a recreational area, and Columbia, due to its location on I-70.
Gansemer believes trafficking is happening “in every country, every state, every community,” she said. “Traffickers include pimps, family members, organized crime networks and individuals. Victims are enticed with material goods and promises of employment, love, safety and a better life.”
In many cases, social media is used to facilitate it, she said.
She quoted statistics that showed human trafficking is a $32 billion industry worldwide, second only to illegal drugs as a criminal activity, with up to 300,000 new child sex trafficking victims in the U.S. every year. Victims are 89 percent female, 11 percent male, with an average age of 13, she said.
“One in three teens on the street will be lured to prostitution within 48 hours of leaving home,” she said. Nearly 1.7 million teens run away in the U.S. every year, Gansemer told the group, and 1.3 million children are exploited by the global sex trade annually.
Trafficking also contributes workers to other industries, she said. Top venues for labor trafficking are landscaping, agriculture, the hospitality and food industry and domestic work. Top venues for commercial sex were massage parlors and spas, escort services, pornography and online ads, she said.
The Camdenton-based coalition’s long-term goal is to build a safehouse for victims of human trafficking. Victims need a place to escape and safehouses are not plentiful, Gansemer said. With their many problems, including PTSD and sleep disorders, the victims are “not a good fit in domestic abuse shelters,” she said.
“Our most important goal is to try to raise money for a safehouse for victims to find safety, health and healing, and learn job and life skills,” she said, requiring up to a two-year stay. “We figure that is going to be a very long process,” she said.
So far, the Lake of the Ozarks coalition has helped 23 victims referred from the Columbia coalition, including counseling, short-term housing, gas cards for commuting to work, transportation between safehouses, a computer for school, even surgery in one case, she told the group. The coalition receives funding from local foundations and Catholic charities.
Gansemer called the proposed safehouse “a daunting endeavor but with the help of grants and fundraisers and support of businesses and organizations, we feel we can do it.”
She advised parents to watch out for their children receiving gifts, especially cell phones and clothes, any sudden change in dress and personality, different attitudes, a new sense of secrecy, and sometimes an influence by a new friend or boyfriend that keeps them from their family.
“Truancy begins and they start staying out at night,” she said. “They may display signs of fear, depression, self-isolation, they might have a new tattoo, or they might begin to have sexually explicit photos on social media like Facebook or Instagram.”
She added, “We ask you to people watch. Teach children about what can happen to them. Check up on them when they say they’re going somewhere, or being with somebody.”