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Special Report: Sex trafficking in Mid-Missouri

In 2015, 365 cases of human trafficking were called in to the national hotline from Missouri, placing the state 15th in the country for the highest number of reported cases, according to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center.

The hotline received 421 calls in 2016. Of those, 95 involved sex trafficking, which was the most reported from Missouri since 2012.

“I have a lot of friends that don’t even think this is a thing in Columbia, or in Missouri or in the United States,” said Robin Flemming, a sex trafficking survivor.

Flemming, a Columbia native, said her first husband forced her to dance in strip clubs and hotel rooms for five years. She started stripping at clubs in Columbia and was eventually forced to move across the Midwest for jobs.

“I am terrified of hotel rooms,” she said. “I was drug to those places on numerous occasions and thrown in there. ‘Go in there with a smile on your face and make him happy.'”

“There’s a demand to purchase sex and there has been for a very long time,” said Nanette Ward, a founding member of the Central Missouri Stop Human Trafficking Coalition.

The FBI began keeping data on human trafficking cases in 2013. According to the national Uniform Crime Reporting Program’s Human Trafficking 2014 data collection, 636 agencies in Missouri were able to report human trafficking crimes to the UCR program. Only Texas, Illinois, Florida and Michigan had more reporting agencies.

Federal agencies warn that human trafficking cases are sometimes difficult to investigate. The following statement was made in the 2014 Human Trafficking Report:

“However, due to the nature of human trafficking, many of these crimes are never reported to law enforcement. In addition to the law enforcement facet in fighting these crimes, there are victim service organizations whose mission it is to serve the needs of the victims of human trafficking. In order to have the complete picture of human trafficking, it would be necessary to gather information from all of these sources.”

In mid-Missouri, the Boone County Cyber Crimes Unit has investigated and closed two sex trafficking cases in the past decade. Both involved children and both suspects were sentenced in federal court.

“I refer to Columbia as like the pivot city, because we’re stuck in between two major cities where individuals are looking as a region to work their crimes,” said Detective Tracy Perkins. “They’re potentially going to be coming to Columbia.

Perkins said the Cyber Crimes Unit, which mainly investigates online sex crimes involving children, closely monitors social media apps as well as sites like Craigslist and Backpage.

“We see the talk, we see the lingo, we see the ads,” she said. “We see that people will say in the ad that they’ll be here for two days in Columbia and they’re out.”

Both the Columbia Police Department and Jefferson City Police Department said they haven’t had an investigation with enough sufficient evidence to report a human trafficking case to the FBI.

Some mid-Missouri cities, like the Lake of the Ozarks, see an increase in online ads for sex during the summer months.

“A police detective said it’s really unusual for a weekend to go by without finding a couple women who are obviously intoxicated just left abandoned on the strip,” said Mary Spencer with the Lake of the Ozarks Stop Human Trafficking Coalition. “When they check the credentials of the women it often leads back to somebody who looks like a trafficker.”

Some state lawmakers are putting sex trafficking bills at the top of their legislative priorities. Senator Jamilah Nasheed, D – St. Louis, is sponsoring three bills pertaining to sex trafficking this legislative session.

Senate Bill 344 would allow those charged with prostitution to apply to have their criminal records expunged. Another bill, Senate Bill 341, would increase the penalty for soliciting prostitution from a misdemeanor to a felony.

“We have a responsibility to address these issues and this growing concern here in the state of Missouri when it comes to sex trafficking,” Nasheed said at a press conference held at the Capitol on Jan. 25. “This issue is not going away.”

Nasheed said combating sex trafficking in Missouri is a bipartisan issue. Rep. Cloria Brown, R – St. Louis, is sponsoring HB 261, which would require certain establishments to display a poster with the national human trafficking hotline number.

“I really believe that it will save lives, because people do die in the sex trafficking world,” Brown said. “That’s the problem is that so many areas think they don’t have the problem.”

In Washington D.C., Senator Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) is leading the fight against online sex trafficking. McCaskill and Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) have investigated for the past two years. Their subcommittee investigation concluded Backpage officials knew that children were being advertised and sold for sex on its website.

Backpage shut down its adult section across the United States the night before the subcommittee hearing in January.

“Traffickers and purchases, they’re on the same page and we’re not,” Ward said. “They’re ahead of us in knowing the code words, how to put it out there and how to look for it.”

“It’s scary to think that’s how easy it is to access something that you want,” Flemming said.

Flemming was finally able to get away from her husband after he beat her in public and was arrested. She said he was never charged.

“The hardest thing is just knowing that there’s help out there, because society doesn’t see us as a victim a lot of times,” she said. “They see us as we’re the ones doing the wrong.”

If you or someone you know is a victim of human trafficking, you can call the National Human Trafficking Hotline number at 1-888-373-7888.

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