Dr. Deborah Hume, associate teaching professor in the Masters of Public Health Program at University of Missouri-Columbia, offered an informational presentation on human trafficking in Missouri at St. Edwards Catholic Parish Hall in Cassville on Sept. 7.
"I thought human trafficking was something that happened elsewhere," said Hume. "I was not aware of the problem in the United States."
A few years ago, a group of Hume's students decided to host a conference about human trafficking, which opened Hume's eyes to the number of incidents that occur in the U.S.
Since November of 2006, the Human Trafficking Rescue Project, which operates in the western district of Missouri, has charged 41 defendants in human trafficking cases. According to Hume, the project has prosecuted more defendants in human trafficking cases than any district in the country.
Hume began her presentation by sharing the stories of three individuals who spoke at the human trafficking conference hosted by her students. The speakers included a woman from China who traveled to the United States using a Cultural Exchange Visa. The woman was thinking about sending her children to college in America.
"When she got here, she was forced into a prostitution ring," said Hume. "She was arrested and spent seven months in the Boone County Jail. Think about how humiliating, frightening and horrifying it would be to think you were coming to the United States for one thing and then be forced into this violent situation."
Another speaker, who grew up in south Africa, was approached by an organization that offered young men from his home an opportunity to travel to the United States to sing and perform in churches. The young men were promised an education in the U.S. and an opportunity to earn money that they could send back to Africa to be used to build schools.
"Fifteen boys came with him, and they ended up digging swimming pools in Florida," said Hume. "They did get to sing in churches, but they were not fed well. They were invited to sing at a church in Coffeyville, and the people there noticed that they didn't look well and called for an investigation."
The other speaker was Theresa Flores, who grew up in Michigan and then moved to Ohio with her family.
"She was a straight A, bright, pretty young woman," said Hume. "She had a crush on a boy, and one day he asked if she wanted a ride home from school. On the way, he said he needed to stop by his home and asked her if she wanted to come inside."
Not only did the boy rape Flores, but a family member videotaped the assault. The boy and his family used the videotape to exploit Flores.
"They forced her into prostitution," said Hume. "They threatened her brother and killed her dog."
Flores is the founder of SOAP (Save Our Adolescents from Prostitution). The outreach program distributes thousands of bars of soap with the National Human Trafficking Hotline number and key identifying questions free to motels.
Efforts are often organized around major sporting events, conventions and other activities that are known to bring trafficking into cities, said Hume.
"Collaboration is key," said Hume, who is a member of the Central Missouri Stop Human Trafficking Coalition. "We need a multi-agency approach to identify victims and support survivors."
The mission of the coalition is to envision communities free of human trafficking, which is also refered to as modern day slavery.
"After drug dealing, human trafficking is tied with the illegal arms trade as the second largest criminal industry in the world and the fastest growing," said Hume. "Victims of human trafficking are foreign born, either documented or undocumented, U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents. It is a larger problem for youth in the United States."
Victims can be of any race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, said Hume. Children and adults are both at risk.
"Human trafficking benefits both the trafficker and the customers," said Hume. "The customers can even be you and me when we are buying groceries that were picked by laborers."
Domestic trafficking includes the sex industry, such as pornography, prostitution, strip clubs and massage parlors, and labor trafficking, which can include magazine solicitation crews, restaurant workers, traveling carnivals and peddling or begging rings. In Missouri, most victims are identified in labor trafficking cases.
"One of the myths of human trafficking is that all prostitutes are willing participants," said Hume. "Studies have shown that 89 percent of women involved in prostitution want to escape, but feel they have no other options for survival."
Another myth is that physical movement of the victim is required to qualify as human trafficking. Exploitation of the victim is required, but not movement.
"We have to learn to look beneath the surface," said Hume. "Some of the indicators include: poor living conditions; physical abuse; deplorable working conditions; restrictions of movement; severe dependency; and false or fraudulent documents."
Victims of human trafficking are often transported in large groups and sleep or live at their work sites. They might also be housed in facilities with many locks, cameras and other equipment that restricts freedom of movement.
The National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline is 1-888-373-7888. Individuals who suspect a case of human trafficking are encouraged to call the hotline or the FBI office in Kansas City at 816-512-8200.