Human trafficking is a growing industry and it is right here in Kansas City. The human trafficking industry has more than doubled since 2009 with almost $80 billion in “sales” and is the second or third most profitable crime in the world. KC Street Hope, an organization dedicated to eradicating domestic minor sex trafficking (DMST), defines human trafficking as “the act of recruitment, transport, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons by the means of threat or use of force, coercion, abduction, fraud, deception, abuse of power or vulnerability or giving payments or benefits for the purpose of exploitation (i.e. prostitution of others, sexual, forced labor, slavery or similar practices, removal of organs).”

Kansas City plays a disturbing role as a hub for human trafficking due to its central location and intersection of major, east-west and north-south Interstate highways. One study shows that Kansas City is #2 among 10 metropolitan cities in the US has a hub for domestic minor sex trafficking (DMST). The US Attorney’s Office in Western Missouri has prosecuted more cases involving human trafficking than any other US district.

The industries in which DMST and the related Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children (CSEC) occur are prostitution, strip clubs, pornography production, brothels, live sex shows and massage parlors. Domestic servitude (like an indentured servant) is common in the child rearing and housekeeping industries and labor exploitation is most often found in factories, migrant agriculture, restaurants, hotels/housekeeping, food processing and construction/landscaping.

Those who are particularly vulnerable to becoming DMST victims are victims of childhood sexual abuse, runaways, youth from divorced households and those being raised by single parents (commonly referred to as broken homes, a term that all too often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy) and who are very poor. Victims are typically vulnerable in ways beyond the aforementioned characteristics – starved for attention, possess low self-esteem, seek to fill an emotional void left by a missing father – and “spotters” are often employed by pimps to recruit vulnerable victims in schools, malls, parks, coffee shops, amusement parks, fast food restaurants, movie theaters and, most prevalently, online. Runaway children are especially vulnerable as they are often viewed as the culprit for leaving their homes so they lack protections. Spotters and pimps are very educated about how to avoid bringing attention to themselves by avoiding Amber Alerts and other ways for law enforcement to identify them.

A very unsettling part of DMST is that students could be victims and still reporting to school. While this is rare, the threats to victims’ families and/or to their own safety – along with potentially other, coercive techniques – could mean victims of human trafficking are in our classrooms. There are a number of signs and symptoms to look for to spot a potential DMST victim: unexplained bruises and injuries, changes in behavior or language (i.e. more sexualized), tattoos (often used by pimps to “brand their property), expensive gifts, dressing differently (either much more provocatively or conservatively), skipping lunch or individual classes (could be meeting “customers” during the day) and having older boyfriends or friends. While none of these necessarily mean a child is a victim of human trafficking, they might all be reasons for educators to ask more questions.

How can we prevent our students from being victims of human trafficking and exploitation? First, it’s important to reinforce the value and mission of law enforcement officers. Pimps and human trafficking criminals are quick to demonize law enforcement officers as the enemy that often prevents victims who are allowed into broad daylight to seek help. Educating youth on how to report to law enforcement they are in trouble is important.

Another way to prevent human trafficking is to provide awareness about its dangers in schools. KC Street Hope does presentations in schools and has an entire curriculum developed called “Deceptions: Exposing the Lure of Child Sex Trafficking.” There is also a recent documentary called Nefarious: Movement of Souls that is informative. Finding ways to share all or parts of these resources with teachers, administrators and students is another way to educate your school community about the dangers of human trafficking.

Finally, educators can learn more about the importance of Safe Harbor laws. One of the many reasons that victims do not report their situation to authorities is the threat of themselves being prosecuted for crimes into which they are forced. While law enforcement will take into account the coercion used to force victims into illegal activities, sometimes they lack evidence and victims can sometimes themselves be prosecuted. Safe Harbor laws would better protect victims who are 18 and under (under 18 AND those who are 18 for those who were forced into illegal activities prior to them turning 18) from prosecution which will hopefully encourage more victims to report about their situation. A Safe Harbor law has been introduced in Missouri, but has not yet passed.

You can consult the following sources or more information:

KC Street Hope: www.kcstreethope.org

FBI Civil Rights Division: http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/investigate/civilrights/human_trafficking

Shared Hope International Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking Study: http://sharedhope.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/Independence_PrinterFriendly2.pdf

Renewal Forum: http://renewalforum.org/