When visiting St. Louis, many think of the Arch and the new Stanley Cup Champions. However, below the surface, St. Louis and the bi-state region are common sites for sex trafficking, as explained in a women’s studies presentation Friday.
According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, there were 144 total reported cases of human trafficking in Missouri in 2017, and 112 of those cases were identified as sex trafficking. Seven fell within the category of sex and labor trafficking. The hotline is careful to note this does not even begin to account for all human trafficking cases, as there are many unreported cases as well.
The FBI defines human trafficking as a person under 18 participating in commercial sex acts through force, fraud or coercion. As Erin Heil, associate professor of criminal justice studies, said during Friday’s presentation “Identifying and Protecting Female Victims of Sex Trafficking,” strong pimp control is a hallmark of sex trafficking. This, along with the survivor’s age, helps to differentiate it from prostitution.
Sex trafficking in
Just like in other places across the U.S., sex traffickers in the surrounding area typically seek out the most vulnerable populations. Heil mentioned the LGBTQ+ population, as well as children who are homeless because of their parents, are deemed “throw-away status.”
“This is when parents don’t accept their children for who they are, so they literally kick them out or throw them away,” Heil said. “So I’m on the streets, I need to survive. One way to survive, to get food or money or whatever I need is to have sex for people. So here, when I’m ‘choosing’ to be a prostitute, is that really a choice? Not if I’m homeless.”
Throughout her studies and work with survivors, law enforcement, advocates and policymakers since 2008, Heil said she has seen her fair share of these types of survivors. Heil also said traffickers prey on children in the foster care system and those dwelling in group homes. Traffickers use this method to find other targets, as those already being trafficked in group homes will inform them of new residents.
“Foster care is one of the biggest spots,” Heil said. “If they’re in foster care and then they move to a group home, traffickers will actually stand outside of the group home, wait for them to leave and then say ‘Hey, you know, I’ve got a better life for you, I can take you somewhere else.’”
Heil said children may also be trafficked as a result of their parents using them as a commodity to pay off drug debts, and this is most common with young children. Fraudulent acts such as “friends” recruiting other friends and false promises of opportunity/ fame are other ways one may end up being trafficked.
The “boyfriend as pimp” model, in which one trafficker presents himself to targets as their lover, is the most popular type of sex trafficking in St. Louis and can also be found on college campuses, according to Heil.
“We have seen this on college campuses, where at frat parties ‘If you love me, you’ll go sleep with my friends over there.’ That is boyfriend as pimp,” Heil said. “From survivors that we’ve interviewed, that is the most commonly seen.”
However, traffickers may also take on a boss role. Because they do not need to act like they care about their targets, Heil said this type of trafficking often results in more violent altercations.
The warning signs of sex trafficking
As law enforcement has become more knowledgeable about indicators of trafficking, criminals have changed the way they maintain their operations. Heil said while previously traffickers would brand or tattoo their targets, physical indicators such as this are now rarely seen.
“They used to do the scarring and the tattoos, so we’d see survivors that have numbers on their neck, or they have their trafficker’s name or something like that,” Heil said. “They don’t do that anymore, because the traffickers learned we’ve identified it. What we’re generally going to see is what was once a generally healthy person is now showing signs of malnourishment. Again, this might not necessarily be trafficking, but physically it’s very difficult to look at a person and know if they’ve been trafficked or not.”
Heil said social, financial and legal indicators are more prominent. Socially, one may spot a potential sex trafficking target by noticing the sudden possession of expensive possessions/ clothing, new, often older, people hanging around and excessive absences from school.
Survivors might show signs of dependency on drugs or alcohol, as this may be a means through which the trafficker keeps them dependent on them.
One may also be able to spot a sex trafficking survivor if they notice said person lacks financial records, or if there is another person holding their documents (licenses, passports, etc.). A trafficker might insist on speaking for them, or may make them feel indebted to them.
Heil also said one attorney claiming to represent multiple individuals is another legal indicator that something may be amiss.
Carolina Rocha, director of the women’s studies program, said informing students, faculty and staff of these warnings signs will help better communities.
“We are trying to train the next generation of professionals, of social workers, of journalists, of teachers, and we have to be able to recognize these social indicators to be able to help our community,” Rocha said.
Junior social work major Shavontae Lindsay, of Springfield, Illinois, said she recently witnessed an incident where these warning signs came in handy. As a member of the National Guard, Lindsay has undergone extensive training regarding human trafficking, so she is well aware of potential indicators.
According to Lindsay, she and a sergeant were heading to Rockford, Illinois, to pick up soldiers. When they stopped at a gas station, Lindsay saw a man with many women exhibiting suspicious activity.
“It looked like he was taking their wallets and their IDs or whatever, and he was holding it when walking into the store,” Lindsay said. “I told my sergeant and he was like ‘I’m going to call somebody because I don’t know what this is.’ Had I not gone through previous trainings like that, I would not have known to say something to him. I would have been like ‘Oh, he’s just holding it for them.’”
Because Lindsay believes she would not have noticed this suspicious activity before her training, she said she wished Heil’s presentation would have had a bigger turnout.
“I wish it was publicized more on campus, that way more people would have came and more people would have known this is necessary to learn about, especially since this is our area and we all live around here,” Lindsay said.
What to do about indicators of trafficking
If one sees signs that someone is being trafficked, Heil stressed they should not directly intervene, but instead should call the police.
“If you ever suspect someone is being trafficked, do not intervene, call the police because you could get that person killed, you could get yourself killed,” Heil said.
One may also contact the National Human Trafficking Hotline, operated by Polaris, at 888-373-7888 or text “HELP” or “INFO” to 233733.
How sex traffickingis prosecuted
Heil said the federal penalty for human trafficking, which does not distinguish between sex and labor trafficking, can be up to 20 years in prison, but with aggravated circumstances can reach up to life.
The federal penalty for charges of child sex trafficking is no less than ten years and can span up to life.
However, because a high amount of evidence is needed to show the means of the crime, it is rare for prosecutors to obtain a guilty verdict on charges of sex trafficking. Heil said prosecutors often settle for a lesser charge.
“It’s very rare, because that goes back to what I was talking about at the beginning, trying to show that means and prosecutors know they’re not going to get a guilty verdict because they don’t have enough evidence for that means, so what they will do is lower the charge, they’ll do a rape charge,” Heil said. “I had one prosecutor that she was going to file it under a white collar crime charge. So, when we see trafficking charges they’re very minimal and you have to have a very strong case.”
Further complicating matters, survivors may not agree to assist the prosecution as they might not have come to terms with their abuse for a number of reasons, including believing the pimp is going to marry them or being unable to accept they are living in or have lived in a trafficking situation. Heil said survivors often tell her they believed they were not victims as a means of surviving.
“So many of those that I’ve talked to that were in and out of the life said ‘In order to survive, I had to say this was my choice, and I had to say that he really did love me,’” Heil said. “That was the only way they could make sense of anything, and it took years of therapy for them to get to the point where they actually realized what they were doing.”
Often, just catching the perpetrators is hard enough, as they are constantly on the move, according to Heil.
“If I do find a [survivor], or I hear about the [survivor], they’re going to be gone the next day,” Heil said. “They don’t stay in one place for very long. So, we’ll see them come in and out of the area, but not stay in the area.”
For more information on human trafficking in Missouri, view Missouri Spotlight from Polaris.