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.
Total hotline communication from Missouri (trafficking tips, service referrals, requests for crisis assistance):
426 total hotline phone calls
135 unique cases of potential human trafficking in Missouri reported to the hotline
18.5 percent of those were potential labor trafficking
70.4 percent of those were potential sex trafficking
38.5 percent of suspected sex trafficking victims were minors
71.1 percent of suspected sex trafficking victims were female
With so many complicated factors, law enforcement agencies across the region remain vigilant for the crime, including Springfield Police Chief Paul F. Williams. “People need to realize it does happen in the United States,” Williams says. “It’s not just an international problem, and our young people are not at risk only when they are overseas.”
He points to a recent Springfield case involving a local man who was charged with two counts of sexual trafficking in the second degree, two counts of endangering the welfare of a child and one count of statutory rape in the second degree. The two victims were rescued after contacting one of their friends for help, who told the police what she’d learned. The outcome of that case will be decided when it heads to circuit court later this year.
Due to insufficient manpower, such cases come to the department’s attention through tips, not proactive investigating. But Williams hopes that will change, citing the department’s goal of starting a vice unit to investigate vice activity, including trafficking, by 2019. “We have never had one, which would allow us to proactively go after and investigate not just on a complaint basis, but seeking out some of these things, from street-level prostitution up to coordinated, organized human trafficking on a wide scale,” he says.
It’s not unprecedented for such rings to appear in 417-land, so that watchfulness is warranted. For example, federal prosecutors convicted members of a multinational criminal enterprise involving the forced labor trafficking of foreign workers, many of whom were recruited under false pretenses, placed in service and hospitality jobs in locations around the country—including some Branson hotels—and controlled through manipulation and threats.
The Branson Police Department says it hasn’t yet encountered and charged its own trafficking cases but acknowledges that a severe lack of staff and resources may limit their efforts. “That’s what keeps me awake at night: what we don’t know is occurring in our community,” says Chief of Police Stanley Dobbins. He hopes that the Branson sales tax that was voted through in November will lead to more public safety funds, allowing increased capacity for the department to investigate all criminal activity, including trafficking.
In the meantime, Branson Police Sergeant Sean Barnwell says the department remains vigilant for traffickers. For example, investigators are trained in recognizing trafficking, and the force recently added two new officers to monitor activity at hotels and motels, locations where victims can work or be harbored. “I think that that, as far as human trafficking, gives us a leg up on knowing what’s going on out there at those locations,” Barnwell says.
Much of Joplin detective Chip Root’s investigative efforts center on thwarting illicit online activity. He serves as task force commander of the Southwest Missouri Cyber Crimes Task Force, which covers 22 regional counties and focuses on cybercrime’s intersection with crimes against children and child sexual exploitation, which can easily evolve into trafficking. For example, criminals can coerce a child into creating pornography that’s then trafficked online, which Root believes can fall under the definition of human trafficking. Or, criminals might utilize the internet to arrange meetings between buyers and victims at locations like casinos before vanishing and resurfacing elsewhere.
Such highly transient situations are challenging for local police to pin down, but Root says that’s where the task force comes in. Many of its members possess federal commissions with the FBI, Homeland Security or U.S. Marshals, allowing them to investigate and charge cases beyond their jurisdictions and effectively collaborate with those agencies. “That’s the beauty of it,” he says.