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Not for Sale: On the frontline in the fight against sex trafficking

By: Jessica Meszaros


A recently passed law gives states the ability to fight online trafficking [shutterstock.com photo]

Local forces are working to bring sex trafficking to a halt across the country – and that includes the greater St. Louis area.

On April 11, after years of bipartisan discussion and about 180 co-sponsors, Rep. Ann Wagner [R-MO] and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy [R-CA] witnessed President Donald Trump sign the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act [FOSTA] into law.

“This bill was born out of grit, gumption a little grace from God,” Wagner said. “It’s probably the most significant anti-trafficking legislation to pass Congress in 20 years.”

The bill allows both federal and state prosecutors and attorneys general to pursue websites hosting sex-trafficking ads, while also helping to enable victims and state attorneys general to file lawsuits and shut down sex-related areas of the internet that allow advertising related to sex-trafficking and sexual exploitation of adults and minors. The bill also amends the criminal code to add fines and prison terms for individuals “knowingly assisting, supporting or facilitating a violation” of the law and those “using a facility, or means of interstate or foreign commerce, to own, manage or operate a web service that promotes or facilitates prostitution.”

“Congress never intended for the internet to become a red-light district,” Wagner said. “I’d very simply put it: if it’s a crime offline, then it’s a crime online. Period.

“You have to be careful and self-aware when you’re on the internet. You never know when some predator is out there and is going to manipulate you, and before you know it, you’re roofied, raped and you wake up in Houston.”

It happens in St. Louis

In 2017, the National Human Trafficking Hotline reported receiving 26,557 calls and documented 8,524 cases of human trafficking in the United States. St. Louis is in the top 20 cities for the most reported sex trafficking calls in the country.

“Sex trafficking is hiding in plain sight in our community,” Wagner said. “It’s in every cul-de-sac, every school district, every social-economic background, every faith community.”

Lindsey Ellis agrees. Ellis is director of operations at The Covering House, a local nonprofit that provides rehabilitation and outreach programs to children, adolescents and teenage victims of sex trafficking across the state. She said cases and referrals come from St. Louis city as well as St. Charles and St. Louis counties and surrounding counties. The organization has an ongoing waitlist and recently received a 17-acre property donation that would triple its current capacity.

“Our girls are coming from all over,” Ellis said. “It crosses social classes, races and social economics.”

For the past three years, the organization’s most common average referral age has been 15, with its youngest referral being a 7-year-old girl.

Ellis said FOSTA “speaks volumes to the youth we work with and the victims of [sex trafficking] that the government is saying, ‘We’re not OK with it, and we’re going to hold these people accountable.'”

“Can we stop it this way? Not completely, but we’re taking a stand to say it’s not OK,” Ellis said.

She said she will “never forget” one of her first cases with The Covering House.

“When this girl walked in the office, she reminded me of almost like a little anime doll,” Ellis said. “She was really cute and petite, and kind of dressed funky in that way with the bobby socks and the plaid skirt and the pigtails. She was very smart and, when you talked to her, it was clear that she was 17, but she had this appearance of a doll. She had that presence and that innocence. She still loved life, which was really encouraging, but it was the reality of – here was this almost doll-like creature sitting in front of me, and we were having to process this horrific trafficking experience.”

Although sex trafficking has existed since the profession of prostitution began, Ellis, like Wagner, said the internet has played a role in changing its present and future.

President Donald Trump signed H.R. 1865, the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act [FOSTA], into law on April 11. [White House Press Release Photo]

It happens on the web

FOSTA amends Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act [CDA], which originally was an internet freedom initiative and has made some online service providers immune from civil liability.

According to Wagner, Section 230 has served as a roadblock for previous anti-trafficking efforts, including one notable St. Louis court case from 2010 and known as “M.A. v. Village Voice Media, LLC.” A girl, identified as M.A., was trafficked and sexually exploited on Backpage.com, an advertising and classifieds website accused of allowing users to post ads related to prostitution and human trafficking. The case asserted that the website had helped facilitate M.A.’s trafficking; however, the case was dismissed due, in part, to CDA protection.

Then, on April 6, 2018, Backpage.com was seized by the United States Department of Justice and CEO Carl Ferrer pled guilty to charges of facilitating prostitution and money laundering.

According to Wagner, FOSTA doesn’t only serve to punish perpetrators and websites like Backpage.com for facilitating trafficking but also strives to deter future offenders.

“The thing that was so unique about FOSTA is the civil component and the very tough criminal component, which doesn’t just allow you to go after these criminals and allow prosecutors to get convictions and put predators behind bars, but I think it also serves as a deterrent,” Wagner said. “Even before the president signed FOSTA into law, we shut down over 80 percent of the online sex trafficking trade. The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office sent me a quote a few weeks ago saying, ‘The online economy powering human trafficking in America is decimated.’”

According to Wagner, examples of trafficking websites that already have been shut down include Escorts in College, Erotic Review, Night Shift, Massage Troll and more.

“Massage Troll was a big one in the St. Louis area,” Wagner said.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children [NCMEC] has reported that in the last five years, there has been an 846 percent increase in child sex trafficking reports, and 81 percent of those reports concerned online sex trafficking specifically.

“Obviously the dynamic has changed,” Wagner said. “The need was there.”

According to Ellis, the internet has changed the recruitment or “grooming” of potential victims online with dating apps like PlentyofFish and social media sites like Facebook. The trafficking of a minor can occur via chatrooms, dating sites and social media with teens under the guise of a friendship or romance with victims realizing later the other individual is a perpetrator – but only after exchanging information, sending explicit personal or peer pictures or meeting in person.

“When it’s something and there’s a demand for it, there’s a business for it,” Ellis said. “Our girls and our boys tell us that the internet makes it easy because there are always new outlets coming up. By the time we figure out one app, there’s another app popping up that we’ve never heard of. I was just talking with a detective and he said, ‘OK, here’s the new Backpage.com.’”

It happens between ‘friends’

Sometimes peer pressure from trusted individuals can coerce individuals into trafficking; sometimes it’s a perpetrator assuming the role of a trusted party, like a friend or romantic interest.

“I’d say the majority of it is this sort of boyfriend-type relationship. But we are seeing more now where they’re using other 15-, 16- or 17-year-olds, or other girls who can pass for that age, to go into these homeless shelters and befriend these teenagers, or they go online and befriend them, and then say, ‘It’s not that bad, I do it’ and they basically become their recruiters,” Ellis said.

Sex trafficking, she said, doesn’t just occur between strangers. Individuals also can be exploited by family members, friends or peers, and in some online instances, the initial trafficker isn’t physically present. Both scenarios can lead to instances of victim-blaming and misclassification by prosecutors or other agencies due to technicalities.

“For example, families selling their kids for drug money are getting pooled for abuse, but not for trafficking,” Ellis said.

According to Wagner, some traffickers will use fliers advertising modeling jobs, babysitting positions or local parties to minors in public places like malls or movie theaters.

“These predators don’t even have to go online, they’ll hang out in front of [stores] and hand out fliers to young girls, who move in packs,” Wagner said “They think they’re invincible by sheer force of numbers, but they walk out of one of these shops and there will be older boys handing out fliers to go party. They think, ‘We’ll go home, we won’t tell mom and dad, we’ll get dressed up and we’ll all go together and it will be OK.’ And then it’s not OK.”

According to Ellis, about 10 to 15 percent of The Covering House’s members are held against their will through force by traffickers, but the other 85 to 90 percent are coerced into exploitation. According to the Missouri Attorney General’s Office [AGO], traffickers often will look for individuals who are alone, have large amounts of free time before or after school, lack family support or are looking for a loving relationship.

“People think ‘You have to get away from the scary white van’ but traffickers actually come in looking like a friend instead, or a boyfriend,” Emily Russell, executive director of the AGO’s Human Trafficking Task Force, said.

According to Ellis, the psychological manipulation by a supposed friend, family member or romantic interest also can stop victims from seeking help.

Sex trafficking can begin with something as seemingly benign as a “friend” request. [shutterstock.com photo]

“Sometimes, it’s seen as consensual by the victim, because it’s ‘just their boyfriend,’” Ellis said. “We ask a lot of questions like, ‘What’s the age difference between you and your boyfriend?’ That’s a common one. We also ask questions like, ‘How do you feel in the relationship? Do you ever feel like the relationship is complicated but you don’t know why? Do you ever feel like you have to walk on eggshells? Do you ever feel like you’re in love with them but, at any time, it could go away?’ Just some questions that get them thinking about the relationship, and the healthy parts of a relationship. Especially when it’s a friend or another adult figure in their life, it can be hard for them to know what’s normal adolescence and what is something more extreme.”

While many referrals and survivors of exploitation are females, experiences in trafficking aren’t limited by gender or sexual orientation. According to Russell, more information is beginning to surface about male trafficking victims.

“There have been a few studies done that show that domestic minor sex trafficking is comprised of, sort of, 50-50 with boys and girls,” Russell said. “We also know that the LGBT community is at a much higher risk because they get pushed out for their beliefs. As time goes on and we identify these things more, we might also see it more in our own communities. These are youths and teens who don’t feel accepted where they’re at, so they reach out and start to form unhealthy relationships, and sometimes they’re forced out to the point where they’re literally homeless. Then, they’re in this position where they refer to it a lot as ‘survival sex,’ but it’s still an adult taking advantage of a youth.”

Recently The Covering House extended its services to male survivors.

“It’s hard to identify victims as a whole, but it’s even harder to identify male victims,” Ellis said. “I think it’s something that just hasn’t been talked about a lot, and a lot of resources aren’t going there yet.

“Getting people to disclose this as a traumatic piece of their lives and getting them to disclose those events can be difficult. We opened our services for boys knowing that it was a need several months ago, and it probably took two to three months before we were seeing our first referral.”

It’s hard to escape

“Over half of the women who have been with us have said at one point or another, ‘I just didn’t know anyone who got out,’” explained Katie Rhoades, founder and executive director of Healing Action.

Rhoades created the organization to provide services and programs to survivors of commercialized sex exploitation – services that didn’t exist for her.

After previous untreated trauma and addictions to drugs and alcohol, Rhoades was lured into sex trafficking and taken to California at age 19 with the promise of a better life. In 2002, at age 21, Rhoades escaped to a rehabilitation center.

“The last moment for me was when the fear of staying got bigger than the fear of leaving,” Rhoades said. “The unknown can force people to stay in really crappy situations because you don’t know if it’s worse on the other side. I think I got to a point where I knew, 100 percent inside my soul knew, that I was going to die. I fluctuated between just wanting to [die], because I didn’t see another way out, and then I had a glimpse of, ‘Oh [expletive], now I don’t actually want to.’”

According to Rhoades, leaving her traffickers was a daily epiphany made difficult by a variety of other factors.

“I faced a lot of judgment and unhelpful things from service providers, from law enforcement and from other people in the community, from my family,” Rhoades said. “Every day, I had to say again, ‘I’m not going back.’”

Rhoades said a lack of public awareness and stigmas about trafficking victims “as criminals and prostitutes” still exist today.

“The day-in and day-out struggle, once you have been so egregiously abused and violated and raped and harmed, is that it’s so hard to put the pieces of your life back together,” Wagner said. However, that’s exactly what Rhoades did.

In addition to earning a master’s degree in social work from the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis, Rhoades also helped create Missouri’s Safe at Home bill, which provides free post office boxes to trafficking survivors so perpetrators cannot locate them. Rhoades also has trained many hotel staff teams to identify instances of commercial sex trafficking and has worked with local police departments to train officers and other staff members.

“I really wanted to identify what resources there were in the St. Louis community and how they were working and not working; then, try to fill the gap,” Rhoades said.

Healing Action currently serves 47 survivors. It opened its doors to 10 survivors in 2015 and has served a total of 71 clients since. Many of its staff members also are sex trafficking survivors.

“Several of our women have said they’ve been to therapists and other agencies and they can’t talk freely about their experiences on the streets because someone gets upset or someone doesn’t know how to handle it,” Rhoades said. “Here, they’re free to be able to talk about that and we’re not shaming. A lot of times we’re like, ‘You know, been there.’”

According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, human rights organizations estimate that there are 25 million victims of human trafficking worldwide. In the U.S., it’s estimated that human trafficking generates $9.5 billion annually. According to the U.S. Department of Justice and NCMEC, a trafficker can make around $150,000 to $200,000 and exploit an average of four to six victims at a time. Most victims receive marginal or no money, but FOSTA has come under fire from those who do.

“Does [FOSTA] hinder women who are in the sex trade by pure, free choice?” Rhoades asked. “Probably, but I’m actually okay with that too. I know it’s not popular to say that, but the vast majority of folks I interacted with when I was in the trade, and the other survivors since I got out, never wanted to be there.

“It was abuse, economic insecurity or something else that really forced them into that trade. The traumatic impact is the same or very close to the same whether the person chooses to go into the sex trade or whether they’re forced into it by a third party. I tend to choose the less fortunate’s rights over those who are making a fully-informed choice.”

Unlike with minors, a case of sex trafficking for those over 18 must prove force, fraud or coercion, which can be difficult to prove.

“You can get a case where you can clearly see someone is doing something against their will, but sometimes that can be really challenging to move through the criminal justice system, so it ends up being charged as neglect or sexual assault,” Russell said. “There’s never really been a, ‘Hey, check this box for sex-trafficking.’ There are people looking for ways to do that, but it’s a constant challenge.”

Another challenge is similar to the one faced by minors, that is adults being unwilling pulled into trafficking through social media or dating applications.

“I was made aware of a case out of Arkansas several years ago where a woman was just a few months away from getting her Ph.D. in neuroscience and was lured away by a human trafficker because it came in the form of a romantic partner,” Russell said.

And the road to recovery is long

“There is no such thing as a perfect victim,” Rhoades said, “and unfortunately, as a community and as a movement, we like perfect victims. That sounds horrible, but we like being able to say, ‘Yes, you were 100 percent a victim.’ Usually, that looks like a white, 10-year-old kid that’s in a basement. None of our victims are perfect victims. They’re not. I wasn’t. My case would not have held up in court. It was too muddy. Most of the folks that we work with, their cases probably wouldn’t hold up in court because they’re too muddy.”

While the road to recovery from trafficking is long for some, it can be cut short for others.

“Some have gone away and come back, some folks have unfortunately been arrested again and are back in jail, even though they’re still communicating with us about discharge plans like, ‘When I’m out of here, can I come see you guys?” and things like that,” Rhoades said. “Unfortunately, we’ve had a handful of people that have passed away because drug addiction goes hand-in-hand with our population, and they OD. We see a lot of the effect of the heroin epidemic that we serve, and unfortunately, we’ve lost some of our clients.”

While loss occurs, many survivors have also gone on to have new lives free from trafficking and addiction. Some have gone on to gain acceptance to St. Louis area colleges or other professional positions, some in the field of social work or sex trafficking outreach. Some have started new families away from “the life.”

“We have a couple folks that ended up pregnant, but watching them since they’ve had their babies, it’s been a huge shift,” Rhoades said. “They want to have a positive life for their kids, and that’s huge.”

Recovery isn’t one-size-fits-all, and according to Rhoades, some individuals struggle with drug or alcohol addiction or diagnoses like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder [PTSD.] Some individuals might need to talk to trauma therapists while others may seek sobriety. Others may be homeless or need medical care.

“It’s not an easy process, and a lot of folks run back to using or they struggle with facing it,” Rhoades said.

Ellis said that reconnecting survivors with supportive family, friends and community members also is part of the recovery process.

“The first two to three months, all we’re doing is really focusing on building safety in the girls, physically, emotionally, spiritually and mentally,” Ellis said. “Once we get to that point where they feel safe, then we start working on what we call the mourning stage or the trauma stage. That’s where they start processing whatever they feel comfortable with. Once they walk through that stage, then we get to what we call the reconnection stage where we’re working intentionally with the communities they’re going to be going back to make sure that reconnection is as healthy as possible.”

But you can help

When it comes to public intervention, AGO training videos [makemofree.com] say the best option is not to confront the situation directly. Instead, witnesses should document the situation, identify marks and vehicle details, and reach out to law enforcement or 911 if the situation appears urgent.

“If something doesn’t look right, I think trusting your gut is a big part of making that report,” Russell said. “I think most law enforcement feel this way, but I know especially our unit, we’d rather you be safe than sorry.”

According to the AGO Human Trafficking Unit, potential victims of sex trafficking may sometimes avoid making eye contact, will wear clothes or outfits that don’t match the season, work odd or inconsistent hours, display hypervigilance, a distrust of law enforcement, anxiety and paranoia.

Russell suggested that a good way to help is by working with accredited organizations or coalitions that aid survivors. Coalitions in the St. Louis area are the National Council of Jewish Women’s Human Trafficking Committee, the St. Charles Coalition Against Human Trafficking, the St. Louis Rescue and Restore Coalition and Human Trafficking Collaborative Network.

Wagner said another step is to take FOSTA legislation to the individual state legislatures to pass similar laws nationwide.

“Missouri is already taking it up in the House and Senate,” Wagner said. “From Texas to Florida to Washington State, there are legislative bodies that will be taking up FOSTA, because most sex trafficking is prosecuted at the state and local level.”

While the National Human Trafficking Hotline ranks Missouri 16th in the country for reported sex trafficking calls, Russell said the statistic may be a sign of change.

“I think that might also be a good thing because it also means our citizens are becoming more educated on this topic and are making those calls,” Russell said. “They’re reporting it, so it might actually be a good sign that we are coming to the table and taking this problem seriously in our state.”

Rhoades suggested that legislation like FOSTA and the ongoing increase in public awareness are factors that might spur more available resources and, in turn, more reported cases of trafficking.

“The more resources law enforcement and the prosecuting offices have, the more they’re going to be able to prosecute cases,” Rhoades said. “I don’t see the incident number going down, I foresee them going up, but not necessarily because more incidents are going on. I believe those instances have been going on since prostitution.”

While it’s not possible to “legislate away the evils of society” Wagner said items like FOSTA can make a difference.

“We’ll get them,” Wagner said. “I’m passionate about this issue and this area, and I don’t want to see this anymore. There’s more to be done, but we never stop, we will stay vigilant and we’re grateful for the impact that this is having. We look to do more.”

The National Human Trafficking Resource Center can be reached at (888) 373-7888.

The Missouri AGO Human Trafficking Hotline is (844) 487-0492. Anonymous online forms for suspected trafficking cases also can be submitted to the Missouri AGO at makemofree.com.

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