JEFFERSON CITY– Secretary of State Jason Kander introduced a plan earlier today, along with several other lawmakers, to protect human-trafficking survivors in Missouri.
Women, children and men are being traded all across Missouri for sexual exploitation, forced labor, slavery and even removal of organs. St. Louis is one of the top 20 human trafficking jurisdictions in the country.
“It is shocking and it is unacceptable, but it is not inevitable,” said Kander.
This bipartisan effort would extend The Safe At Home Program to include victims of human trafficking. The Safe At Home Program is currently in place to assist survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault.. Supporters say the program is crucial because many survivors of these tragic experiences have fear that their perpetrators will come after them and continue to cause harm.
“We know we have to be very thorough and take it one step at a time,” said Senator Gina Walsh, D- Bellefontaine Neighbors. “Anybody that has children, especially daughters, knows how important this is.”
The proposed legislation will help human trafficking survivors stay safe after escaping, if they are able to do so. The program provides them with a new, substitute address, which they can use to register to vote, fill out mortgage applications and rebuild their lives in ways many Missourians take for granted. This would help prevent participants’ abusers from finding out their location through public documents.
“What we’re talking about here is human dignity, and with that comes responsibility on our part to do everything we can to bring awareness, to make sure they are safe and to make sure they and reintegrate and move forward with their lives,” said Senator Bob Dixon, R-Springfield. “It is part of the healing process.”
Since 2007, the program has helped more than 2,500 Missourians. By extending this program’s eligibility to protect human-trafficking survivors as well as domestic abuse survivors, supporters say many, many more Missourians will no have protections.
“Getting this legislation to Gov. Nixon’s desk as soon as possible is important because people’s lives are at stake,” said Kander. “With this team of sponsors I am very confident we can get it done this session.”
Katie Rhoades, sex trafficking survivor and founder of Healing Action, a peer support group for sex-trafficking survivors, told her story during the press conference. She described how her exploiter used threats of violence, manipulation and coercion to keep her in the situation.
“By the time I realized the true nature of our experience, I already felt trapped,” said Rhoades. “I felt like I didn’t have a way out.”
For a lot people that have experienced sex trafficking, safety after leaving is their biggest concern. Rhoades explained that her “pimp” had her social security number, driver’s license and access to her birth certificate. Many times if an exploiter is successful in finding a victim after he/she has escaped, the punishment will be much harsher.
“For me, leaving was the scariest part,” said Rhoades. “I had a pretty real fear that wherever I went he would be able to find me.”
However, in 2002, when Rhoades did manage to escape her life of sex-trafficking there were no resources in place to help her, and all she could do was hope he would not find her. All the women in Healing Action were in support of this legislation and many could still use this service today.
“If we can make an offering and begin to really build infrastructure in our state, which we don’t have, to provide protections to victims of human trafficking, we can really change the world,” said Colleen Coble, Chief Executive Officer of the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.