JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — The number of human trafficking cases in Missouri has nearly doubled in Missouri in the past five years, and advocates against trafficking are saying it’s happening more often to kids because of the pandemic.
Based on human trafficking hotline numbers, in 2019, 69 children in Missouri were trafficked. One year later, that number rose to 101 — and experts in the fight against trafficking say some parents are now selling their kids for essentials like food and clothes.
“It’s the pandemic within the pandemic. It’s the best way I can describe it to you,” Shima Rostami, executive director for Gateway Human Trafficking said Monday. “The data says about 30% of the cases happen with a family member or someone the child knows.”
This is a growing problem in the state of Missouri, and the pandemic has only made it worse.
“Family members have been exploiting their children before the pandemic, but it got worse because of the pandemic,” said Nanette Ward, founding member of the Stop Human Trafficking Coalition of Central Missouri.
Ward described it as a “survival strategy,” where families are feeling stressed about money or lack of essentials because of their current situation.
During a briefing held at the Capitol Monday by Rep. Sarah Unsicker (D-Shrewsbury) advocates said more collaboration between agencies needs to be done in order to prevent human trafficking.
“I’m hoping along with legislation, there is this sense that agencies should not be working against each other,” said Jessica Rodriguez, a Washington University student. “It’s everyone’s problem.”
Rostami said that with schools closing and family members losing their jobs during the pandemic, things got worse for children.
“It wasn’t that they were enjoying selling their children. It was because they were trying to provide necessary items to survive, including food, shelter, and clothes for themself and their families,” Rostami said.
Shared Hope International gave Missouri an “F” on its report card in prevention and training, continuum of care, and identification of and response to victims, including those in foster care.
Back in October, a report released by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that more than 900 kids had been missing in Missouri which led to an audit. That showed that at least one child who went missing was a victim of sex trafficking in four states.
“In Missouri alone in 2020, we had about 28,000 children enrolled at schools,” Rostami said. “Many of those children didn’t come back, and they are not going to.”
While some children might be missing from school, Rostami and her colleagues are working to get inside the classroom to teach about human trafficking and the signs of what to look for.
“For the past five years, we are trying to get into schools and educate the students and educators about human trafficking, and we are hearing that sex trafficking is not a good topic to talk about to kids,” Rostami said.
A big problem for kids is their access to technology. Rostami said they could already have communication with a trafficker without a parent knowing.
“By phone and online technology that every kid in Missouri has, traffickers have access to them, they already have started talking to them,” Rostami said.
After a law passed in 2018, places like hotels, strip clubs, abortion clinics, bus stations, and airports are required to hang posters with resources to help victims of human trafficking.
“There was an increase in calls to the national hotline after the posters went up,” said Heather Silverman with the National Council of Jewish Women.
Another issue for the Department of Social Services in Missouri is the labor shortage.
“The Childs Division, they are doing good work, but they are under pressure because in our district. Our hotline number has lost so many of their staff, so they don’t have the staff to cover those positions,” Rostami said.
The Missouri State Highway Patrol (MSHP) created a special unit back in 2019 to train law enforcement agencies across the state about how to identify human trafficking.
There’s also legislation in the General Assembly that was approved by a House committee Monday, which strengthens the penalty of sex trafficking a child. That bill, sponsored by Rep. Ed Lewis, R-Moberly, now heads before the full House for approval. House Bill 2032 would set up an advisory council to research and recommend policy in the state involving trafficking.
For more information about the bill, click here.