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Federal courts in the U.S. handled more than 770 human trafficking cases last year and continued to increase the percentage of cases that ended with a conviction.

That’s according to a new report from the nonprofit Human Trafficking Institute, which also shows that the number of trafficking cases being prosecuted, including cases specifically of sex trafficking, has increased “dramatically” in the U.S. since the Trafficking Victims Protection Act was passed in 2000, marking a culture shift toward recognizing trafficking as a crime and taking steps to fight against it.

“Holding human traffickers accountable through criminal investigations and prosecutions as well as civil lawsuits is a crucial element of an effective, victim-centered approach to combating human trafficking,” the authors said.

The report also shows that there were more federal trafficking cases and convictions in Missouri than in neighboring states in 2018, the same year that local law enforcement raided several massage parlors in Joplin and removed seven victims of trafficking operations. For one local advocate whose organization has been on the front lines of fighting trafficking in Joplin, the likely explanation is that Missouri residents, particularly those in this part of the state, are ready and willing to make a difference.

“At the heart of who Missourians are, they choose not to just see a problem and push it into another state but to say, ‘How can I help?’” said Karolyn Schrage, executive director of Choices Medical Services in Joplin.

Convictions on the rise

A majority of the 771 active trafficking cases in federal courts last year were criminal prosecutions, with civil suits making up only about 12% of the cases, according to the report. It deals strictly with federal cases, criminal and civil, for both sex and labor trafficking, and doesn’t capture data from state prosecutions, state civil suits or unreported cases.

Convictions of those cases are on the rise. Of the 359 defendants whose charges were resolved last year, 96.4% were convicted — an increase from the 93.9% conviction rate in 2017 and the 91.3% conviction rate in 2016. And for the first time in three years, no defendants were acquitted in a federal court in 2018.

Even so, there is some stagnation in fighting trafficking. The government initiated 171 new criminal trafficking cases, an overwhelming majority of which were sex trafficking cases, in federal courts last year, a 29% decline from the prior year. The number of new labor trafficking cases being brought forward in federal courts, relatively low compared with the number of sex-related cases, has remained steady for years.

“Certainly that’s an area we need to improve,” said Kyleigh Feehs, associate legal counsel with the Human Trafficking Institute and one of the authors of the federal report.

Restitution for victims remains uneven. Restitution was ordered against defendants convicted in labor trafficking cases about two-thirds of the time in 2018, compared with about 28% of the time in sex trafficking cases. Restitution was ordered by federal courts in only 40% of cases that triggered the mandatory restitution clause of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act.

“We’re trying to educate prosecutors that under the law ... the burden is not on the victim to request restitution,” Feehs said.

Missouri data

At the state level, Missouri in 2018 had more trafficking cases and convictions than neighboring states.

Missouri had 16 criminal human trafficking cases active in 2018, all of them for sex trafficking, and the state convicted six defendants that year, ordering one of them to pay restitution to the victim.

By comparison, Kansas, Oklahoma and Arkansas each had seven active criminal cases in 2018, all of them for sex trafficking, and a total of six convictions among them, according to the report. In Oklahoma, which had five convicted defendants, four were ordered to pay restitution.

Across the region, Missouri also initiated the most new criminal human trafficking cases in 2018 with four, twice as many as were initiated in each of the other three neighboring states.

Feehs said the report intentionally avoids drawing conclusions about why Missouri’s figures outstrip those of surrounding states.

“It could be a situation where there’s a federal prosecutor in Missouri who is aggressive about” pursuing trafficking crimes, she said. “It also could be a consideration of state laws. I know there’s a variance in state laws and how they address trafficking that plays into whether (cases) are in federal court or state court.”

Indeed, Missouri lawmakers have emphasized trafficking through recent legislation that seeks to aid victims. State law now requires a variety of businesses to display posters that contain resources to assist victims of human trafficking. The posters must be hung in or near the bathrooms or entrance of places including hotels and motels, strip clubs and private clubs, airports and train stations, emergency rooms and urgent care centers, women’s health centers, truck stops and roadside rest areas.

There also could be an increased awareness of trafficking among those who work most closely with it. Chip Root, a detective with the Joplin Police Department, said local law enforcement officials have developed a better understanding of trafficking and all that it encompasses.

“I look over 25 years of doing this job and realize that we’ve been investigating human trafficking for as long as I can remember,” he said. “We just didn’t recognize it for what it was. For our team that works these investigations, we have become more aware of what we’re looking at.”

Trafficking in Joplin

Just a few years ago, at least seven Joplin massage businesses had offered the services of “pretty and hot” or “sweet and young Asian girls” on Backpage.com, an online classified advertising website that has since been seized by federal agents. Most of the local businesses were shuttered after drawing the attention of various law enforcement agencies, which were acting on tips from the public, Root said.

Police in February 2018 discovered seven trafficking victims at three of those massage businesses. Probable-cause statements detailed sexual acts that women in the businesses performed on patrons. The victims, all adult women, were referred to local service organizations, including Choices Medical Services.

Schrage said because the women all came from different places, they each needed their own plan of action, depending on how they wanted to proceed, once they arrived in the care of Choices. The need locally for interpreters for Choices staff and law enforcement to communicate with the women also presented a challenge.

“There’s a complexity in ... knowing we have to be prepared and sensitive for any type of response,” Schrage said. “But for the first time, they were treated with dignity and respect. They were given ‘go’ bags and food. We did everything we could do to help them not feel like strangers in our community.”

Root said multiple leads in those cases have been submitted throughout the country, although it remains a “complex” investigation.

“It’s difficult when you start an investigation today because the people (in question) aren’t there tomorrow,” he said. “Obviously, in our criminal justice system, we would like to see people that are brought to justice and atone for the crimes they commit. However, when it comes to human trafficking, I consider this a huge win because these individuals that were being exploited are no longer able to be exploited.”

Schrage stays connected with the seven women via a WeChat group message. One woman has since returned to her home country, while the other six women returned to their U.S. ports of entry, in most cases to seek other work. One of the women briefly visited Joplin earlier this spring because she wanted to formally thank the individuals and organizations that had helped her last year.

“She was overwhelmed that she would receive that community response,” Schrage said.

‘We all play a role’

The seven women, whose cases dominated local headlines last year, still are somewhat of an anomaly for Southwest Missouri, Schrage said.

The “routine and everyday” face of a trafficking victim in this region is that of a runaway teenager, perhaps someone who has been in foster care, she said. Typically, they’re running from “an unhappy situation” and fall prey to adults who groom them, either in person or online, into believing that they’re the victims’ best and only option for survival.

For that reason, advocates agree that there is still much work to be done in eradicating human trafficking.

“One of the challenges is this issue can feel very paralyzing,” Feehs said. “It’s emotional and sad, and if you don’t have a way to act and respond, it can feel daunting.”

A good first step to responding to the problem is to educate oneself on the subject of trafficking and to recognize that it happens everywhere, meaning that “there’s a real risk” of encountering a victim at virtually any time, Feehs said. People can also get involved in supporting organizations that are “doing the work,” whether that’s building the capacity of governments to prosecute crimes or providing aftercare homes for victims, she said.

Schrage and Choices Medical Services have made education a part of its public service platform. The organization has hosted town hall meetings on trafficking indicators and cybersecurity concerns, and its staff have conducted training sessions for businesses such as the local ambulance service METS and Spire, a natural gas company.

“It does help to open eyes and empower people,” Schrage said. “If you see something, say something.”

Another Joplin-based organization, Rapha House, works internationally to eliminate trafficking through prevention efforts. It operates safehouses for victims in other countries, but locally, it also hosts educational panels for the community and seeks to help people understand the dynamics involved in trafficking, especially for victims.

“If we can have better systems in place, we can avoid more cases of trafficking,” said Robin Blair, the organization’s aftercare director.

Root said he believes all that work is paying off. Last year alone, his law enforcement task force received more than 650 individual cases for investigation, a realistically “unmanageable” caseload to which he credits the public for being on the lookout for trafficking.

“We’re not unique in that we have a bigger problem than anywhere else on the planet,” he said. “I just think we have an interesting approach because we have made a cognizant effort to partner with the community to sit down before a case comes in the door. We’re having these conversations and developing plans for when the worst does happen.

“We do not shy away from this problem in our community,” he added. “We’re not willing to just sit by and do nothing. We all play a role to combat this problem.”

Emily Younker is the assistant metro editor at the Joplin Globe. Contact: eyounker AT joplinglobe DOT com.

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