Missouri's New Child Trafficking Law is Promising First Step, According to Advocates
The changes come after years of criticism over how the state has handled cases of child sex trafficking.
A new law that went into effect this week seeks to improve how Missouri combats child sex trafficking by preventing underaged survivors from being charged with prostitution and requiring law enforcement to immediately report suspected cases to the state. The law, which was passed by state legislators earlier this year as part of a sprawling bill, also creates a statewide council to study child trafficking in Missouri and issue a report next year to the governor and legislature.
One in every three human trafficking victims in Missouri is a child, according to Gateway Human Trafficking.
There were were 101 reported cases of child trafficking in the state in 2020, based on hotline trafficking numbers, but anti-trafficking advocates argue the number is likely higher due to cases that go unreported.
“If we don’t put somebody on the hot seat, the individuals will still keep falling through the cracks and not getting the help they need,” Lewis said. “We’re trying to define it here to make sure that [victims] are protected, that they aren’t swept under the rug.”
Gaps in Reporting
“This [law] is squarely placing the Children’s Division as the primary respondent to cases involving children and sex trafficking, whereas before it was muddy,” said Kathleen Preble, assistant professor of social work at University of Missouri-Columbia and an expert in human trafficking.
A compounding challenge is that Missouri’s Children’s Division faces widespread staff shortages, a factor Preble said might be cause for concern. The law is projected to increase the number of investigations the agency handles and the number of children entering its care. But Children’s Division is already stretched thin. Last week, the chief financial officer for DSS told reporters that Children’s Division may have as many as 200 open positions. There were 237 vacancies in the division in April.
“I asked [DSS]: ‘Do you have a list of how many people were sex trafficked’?” Rep Lewis said. “And they’d say ‘no.’ How can you not have that [data] if you’re the one in charge?”
A study earlier this year from the federal department of Health and Human Services of 25 states found child welfare agencies struggled to ensure frontline staff were trained to oversee child sex trafficking because of high turnover and workloads — a nationwide problem that has afflicted Missouri’s department.
Unseen and Unreported
The bill established a statewide council to study the issue and produce recommendations by December 2023. There are already task forces on human trafficking in Missouri, but this is the first to focus on children. The commission will include four legislators, five department directors and 6 members of the general public. They will meet four times and submit recommendations by December 2023. The council will also analyze DSS data regarding child sex trafficking.
Some advocates, who see the law as a step in the right direction, hope the council might advocate for more thorough training. In order to properly care for victims of trafficking, advocates say, law enforcement and others need to be better trained to find it.
“The next step is to make sure law enforcement and Children’s Division staff are trained and educated to identify [child trafficking],” Rostami said.
“A problem is a huge lack of awareness among community members, including professionals,” Rostami said.