By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
KANSAS CITY — It was standing room only in the lower level public hearing room of the state capitol building in Jefferson City Feb. 9. The scent of wool coats, perfume and aftershave, and emotion drifted through the small room.
Thanks to greater numbers of victims coming forward and speaking out, it has become evident that sexual trafficking occurs more often than most people believe. Traffickers and pimps use deception, coercion and threats of violence to control their victims and force them into labor and prostitution. Certain groups of people, especially children and teenagers, and people brought into this country, are particularly vulnerable to exploitation.
In response to the increasing concern, Representatives Anne Zerr (R-St. Charles) and Sue Allen (R-Town and Country) co-sponsored a bill enhancing and expanding Missouri’s existing human trafficking laws. The new language of the laws will help law enforcement to better identify the crime, and make it easier for victims to receive assistance and restitution.
Having gone through several bouts of editing and tweaking, the bill was sent to the House committees on Crime Prevention and Public Safety and Appropriations for Health and Senior Services, Mental Health and Social Services for public testimony. The Missouri Senate is considering similar legislation.
Two survivors of human trafficking recounted their stories to the House committee, stories made more compelling by their attempts to stay matter-of-fact in their narration.
Margaret Howard was 13 when she was kidnapped from her Illinois hometown, trafficked to Cape Girardeau, Mo., and sold to a pimp. He drugged her, locked her in a room and forced her into prostitution. “I didn’t know what was happening to me,” she recalled.
Some weeks later she was able to escape and found her way to a police station. Her fear of being caught by the pimp kept her from cooperating with the police. When she refused to tell them her name, she was taken to a juvenile detention center in St. Louis. There she finally gave authorities her name. They contacted her parents, who drove to St. Louis to pick her up and take her home.
She told the committee that it was many years before she was able to talk about it.
“I am here today to remind you that victims, especially child victims, of human trafficking are just that, victims. Police often see these kids as prostitutes and criminals,” Howard told committee members.
Howard applauded Missouri representatives’ efforts to remedy “ineffective laws” because “we don’t need this to keep happening.”
Survivor Kristy Childs told the committee that she recognized as a 12-year old runaway that the system kept returning her to an abusive home. She decided it was up to her to try to take care of herself. “I knew I had to get away from my stepfather and out of Joplin, and the only way to do that was to get rides from truck drivers.”
Truckers trafficked Childs through Kansas City and across the country, exchanging transportation, food and a roof over her head for sex. She wound up in Denver under the control of a pimp.
For 24 years, Childs thought there was nowhere to turn, nobody to help. “My thinking was like a ball of twine, all twisted and knotted up,” she said.
She told the committee that she had been shot, knifed, beaten and hung by her thumbs. Childs and her “stable sisters,” other women and girls under the control of the same pimp, lived in constant fear and pain, often with health issues. “It was hell, a hell I am willing to go back into to shine a light for other girls and women,” she said.
Childs had returned to Kansas City and was trying to break the control her pimp had over her when she met a young girl named Veronica Neverdusky. “Veronica was on drugs,” Childs said. “I was a chronic runaway, but both of us were children when it all began. As teens and adults we were criminalized. Veronica was 21 years old when she was murdered and dumped in Penn Valley Park. Trafficking is a new word, but the issue and the problem are as old as the hills. Men feel entitled to buy and use women.”
Childs was in her mid-30s when she was able to break free from prostitution. She and her son moved into a homeless shelter and Childs earned her high school equivalency diploma. She then enrolled in a clerical and computer skills course offered by El Centro, a Kansas social service agency. After she graduated, Sister of Charity of Leavenworth Linda Roth, then-director of job training at El Centro, helped Childs find a job. The Sisters later provided Childs with seed money to start Veronica’s Voice, an advocacy agency for prostitutes, named in memory of Veronica Neverdusky. For the past decade, Veronica’s Voice has provided a Safe Center where women and girls of the streets can go for a pot of coffee, a shower and change of clothes, conversation and, when they are ready, resources to help them recover and heal. Recently, a donor enabled Veronica’s Voice to purchase a home for survivors of sexual exploitation who are working to get on with their lives.
Childs remains convinced that prostitution is a demand issue. “It’s the buyers who control and fuel it,” she said. “The pimps are the smallest group in the issue. The women and girls are the largest group, but the buyers are falling out of the trees. One girl may be sold to as few a five and as many as 25 men in one day. The women are used, controlled and dominated not only by the pimps but by the men who buy them. If the demand was reduced, fewer women would become victims.”
Social service agencies and religious organizations presented testimony in support of the bill before the committee. Missouri Attorney General Kris Koster’s office voiced its support. Assistant attorney general Joan Gummels said, “We’re happy to do anything to help” advance the passage of HB 214.
Representative Eileen McGeoghean (D-St. Ann) commented that traffickers and pimps “need to be prosecuted, whether the victim is controlled by them for a minute or a week or for years.”
Tyler McClay, lobbyist and General Counsel for the Missouri Catholic Conference, told committee members that MCC supports HB 214. “This legislation seeks to end human trafficking and stop the exploitation of young women by the sex trade,” he said. By clearly prioritizing provisions in the state laws, the legislation would help “promote the sanctity and dignity of human life,” an MCC public policy priority for 2011.
A representative from the Missouri Baptist Convention’s Christian Life Commission said that prosecutors lack the resources to distinguish traffickers and their victims, and this bill will provide the necessary tools for identification and prosecution. He described human trafficking as a crime of opportunity, fostered by social environments — the bill will help break the cycle of opportunity and victimization.
Jeff Grisamore (R-Lee’s Summit) serves on a house subcommittee on child victims of trafficking. He is also a co-sponsor of HB 214. He noted that the Children’s Services Commission is also addressing the issue.
House Crime Prevention and Public Safety Committee vice chairman Nick Marshall (R-Platte City) said, “We want to address the wrongdoers, not the victims.” The testimony favored clearly defined language in the state’s human trafficking law and amendments that would help prosecutors charge pimps and traffickers in connection with human trafficking and child prostitution. Marshall added that the “law previously blamed the children and didn’t punish the pimps. We want to be careful that we don’t create additional problems for the victims, the true victims of these crimes.”
Legislation was also introduced earlier this year that would change the classification of certain human trafficking crimes and establish fines and prison terms for the crimes. Sponsored by Jason Kander (D-Kansas City), the proposed bill, HB 433, has been read twice by the House. No further action has been taken at this point.
A group of men and women from Greater Kansas City have been working to research and lay the groundwork to make Kansas City a model city in the fight against trafficking and the sex trade and a provider of services to area youth and child victims. Last fall they organized with Steven Wagner, president of Renewal Forum, a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit dedicated toward the abolishment of human trafficking and victim restoration. KC-CASE (Kansas City Coalition to Abolish Sexual Exploitation), a task force comprised of people from the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas, Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas, the Salvation Army, Jewish Vocational Services, the Metropolitan Organization to Counter Sexual Assault, Veronica’s Voice, Ozanam Pathways, federal and state law enforcement, and children’s and area human rights groups are working on the development of a police protocol to help underage victims of domestic trafficking and sexual exploitation. The protocol encompasses descriptions of victims and perpetrators, and encourages law enforcement to view teenagers and especially children as victims, not criminals. KC-CASE is also developing resources to provide housing, education and aid for victims. Their effort targets a unique, growing population: Domestic trafficking victims under age 18 whose average age is 12.
Marshall said he and the rest of the committee members are committed to passing the best, most complete bill possible. There was no testimony opposing the advancement of the bill. Following a Feb. 16 executive session, Crime Prevention and Public Safety Committee Chairman Rodney Schad (R-Versailles) reported that HB 214 was recommended “Do Pass” and, because the bill involves amending language in existing laws, referred to the Rules Committee. The Rules Committee voted “Do Pass,” and the bill will now go before the General Assembly, although no date has been scheduled yet.
Jude Huntz, Kansas City-St. Joseph diocesan director of the Office of Human Rights, said, “Passage of HB 214 looks to be quick. I would expect it before the spring recess. The Senate is considering a companion version and a sponsoring senator should introduce it soon. I expect the legislation to pass both chambers this session and be signed by Governor Nixon.”
Huntz added that there are several ancillary projects in the works to provide services to homeless youth in Kansas City. “If we succeed in making these projects happen,” he said, “we can make a dent in both the demand reduction goal of our group and limit the supply of kids who are exploited by traffickers.”