How It Starts
In addition to the existence of major arteries like I-44, there are numerous other factors that play a role in allowing traffickers to trap and control victims for commercial sex or forced labor in 417-land. Jen Osgood, educational outreach instructor of Joplin-based human trafficking nonprofit Rapha House, says it’s common for the drug trade, a prevalent local problem, to become enmeshed with trafficking. She saw that entanglement firsthand when her mother fostered a teen whose parent had prostituted her in exchange for drugs.
Drugs were a hugely significant piece in the puzzle of factors that made Lyla vulnerable to trafficking. As a young adult, her life was in a tailspin. Her relationship with her boyfriend, with whom she had a baby, was falling apart and eventually became abusive. He disappeared from her life and took their child with him, leaving her desperate and lonely. Eventually, she started drinking and, after some time, tried methamphetamine.
Not long afterward, she found herself craving more meth. So, joined by a close family member who was also using drugs, she sought out someone who could provide it. That pursuit eventually led them to the man who became her trafficker and ripped her from the life she knew after abducting her during a drug deal.
Trafficking can begin as simply as an individual, perhaps from another country, coming to the region to work to pay off a debt of some kind, says Joplin Police Detective Chip Root. However, the trafficker might charge that person room and board, perhaps restrict their movements, control their legal documents, force them stay on the premises, or threaten to harm their families if they don’t cooperate. “If that’s not slavery, I don’t know what is,” Root says.
Take for example a multi-agency investigation in which search warrants were served at more than a dozen Greene County spas, massage parlors and residences due to suspected human trafficking and prostitution activity. It’s believed that some of the young women working at the businesses, who were largely immigrants from Asian countries, were being held against their will and made to perform sexual acts on customers. Greene County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Patterson confirmed that the women were Asian but could not comment on their status or if they were being held against their will, due the ongoing nature of the case. This Missouri investigation was part of a broader multi-state investigation.
People can also become victims through calculated enticement says Savannah Stepp, director of NightLight Missouri, the local branch of NightLight International, which works with victims of sex trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation. For example, a trafficker might pursue a young victim romantically and use that intimacy to coerce individuals into commercial sex—and trap them there. “They believe that person loves them, and it’s a relationship,” Stepp says. “It may not be a healthy relationship by any means, but it’s a relationship.”
Called a Romeo pimp, such a person preys on the basic desire for attention and connection. Shannon Tatum, who works with Springfield-based I Pour Life, says that makes the at-risk youth she assists—many of whom have experienced neglect or abuse, family instability or poverty—vulnerable. “They want to be wanted,” she says. “They want to feel attached and love and that sense of family.” She recalls coaching a trafficked teen who was progressing in I Pour Life’s program only to be trapped once more. “So often it’s not a choice because sometimes these girls are kidnapped and held captive, but even when they are not, their minds and their hearts are held captive,” Tatum says.
Missouri by the Numbers
Operated by Polaris, a Washington, D.C.–based anti-human trafficking organization, the National Human Trafficking Hotline received 34,068 total human trafficking–related calls, emails and online tips in 2016. Much of that communication came from Missouri, which had the 17th highest call volume in the nation. Based on the hotline’s 2016 data report for Missouri, here’s how those tips break down.