Bringing Light to the Darkness of Human Trafficking (Trafficking in Persons)

Three massage parlors were shut down in Joplin last February.  Joplin detectives say the businesses were using sex slaves.  No local arrests have been made in that case, but it brings to light the issue of human trafficking in the Four States.

24-year-old Victoria Moss says addiction and an abusive relationship led her down a hellish road.

"Just kind of got in a self pity," says Moss.  "Got really drunk, then tried drugs for the first time and I was hooked.  I wanted to go get more, and I went with a trusted family member to the middle of nowhere to do a drug deal and get a tattoo while I was there."

Moss says she was left in the woods in Southwest Missouri.  Those woods became her prison.

"The first time I realized that I was living in hell is when I saw them doing witchcraft and sacrificing things and hunting me as a game.  They would tell me to run and they would start shooting.  I don't think they were aiming to kill me.  It was just a game for them.  How far will she go," says Moss.

She says her captor pimped her out for sex and fed her addiction.

"If they just had enough drug in me, I didn't have the will power or the confidence to leave.  So they would keep just enough drugs in me to where I wasn't really high, but I definitely wasn't not high," says Moss.

Tressa Dunlap runs On Time Ministry, a Missouri-based organization that helps rehabilitate human trafficking survivors.  She says major interstates like I-44, drug trade, and human trafficking go hand-in-hand.

Data from the National Human Trafficking Hotline shows many human trafficking cases are along I-44.  The national Human Trafficking Hotline also reports substance abuse as the second factor for being human trafficked, behind a person recently migrating or relocating.

"Here, in this country, it's very closely tied to drugs.  Either the addiction comes and the trafficking comes to support that addiction, or the addiction comes after what has gone on," says Dunlap.

Life Choices, based in Joplin, deploys a mobile unit when officers suspect human trafficking, helping women like Moss and the ones taken into custody during the Joplin massage parlor busts.  Karolyn Schrage, with Life Choices, says there are misconceptions about human trafficking.

"Are they a victim, are they a survivor?  For us, they're all survivors," says Schrage.  "They have been victimized.  But an FBI interrogator made the comment that just because a victim is compliant in their victimization, it doesn't make them any less of a victim."

Moss says she was forced to visit Joplin several times for drug deals.  The "bad guy" doesn't always look bad.

"A lot of pimps, they don't pull up in a Caddy with twisted rims and a big diamond ring, gold chain, and a pimp's hat," says Moss.  "They look like Army men.  They look like a woman conservative teacher."

Moss says she was held captive for 19 months.  Once left alone in the woods, she was able to find a road, flag down a driver, and was rescued.

"My story is not common.  I am a miracle.  I'm a walking miracle.  I should be dead.  I tried to kill myself.  One percent of women who are trafficked get out.  Don't be that 99 percent," says Moss.

Moss has since started her own business, and says she is rebuilding her life with the help of On Time Ministry and Life Choices.

The Southwest Missouri Cyber Crimes Task Force says a growing number of human trafficking survivors are children; neighbors we see every day in schools and churches.  Tomorrow we'll bring you more on our investigation into human trafficking in the Four States.

Part two

A warning, some of the language in this story is graphic.

A former Joplin police officer, a pastor, a daycare owner.  Just a few of the recent cases of child porn, molestation and abuse cases.  Some sex crimes against children have recently been reclassified as human trafficking.

"Lets call it what it is," says Karolyn Schrage with Life Choices.  "Anyone under the age of 18 who is being wooed into or participating in sex for any kind of payment.  So, lets call it what it is."

Experts say the biggest threats aren't strangers, but the very people children should be able to trust.

"One of the cases that we were pulled into by the FBI to serve was a 16-year-old, an 18-year-old, and the six-month-old of the 18-year-old.  That six-month-old tested positive for anal gonorrhea.  So you tell me what's happening to the children of these exploited women, who they may not even be aware, because they're leaving the child with a caregiver as they're going out to make their quota," says Schrage.  "And who's the caregiver for that child?  What's being done to that child?"

Chip Root is with the Southwest Missouri Cyber Crimes Task Force.  He also works with the FBI.  Root says there were 53 children in the Joplin area last year who were survivors of human trafficking.  There have been 51 children survivors so far this year.

"There are a few who come from outside the country, but the vast majority are our children.  Our neighbors who we see every day in our schools, our churches," says Root.

Experts say spotting human trafficking is the first step.

"Most of the time, girls who are going through things like that are never dressed for the occasion or the weather," says Victoria Moss, a trafficking survivor.  "There would be times it was hot and I was wearing a jacket.  Or it was cold and I had a tank top on."

Other clues are a person being controlled by someone else, the inability to move or leave a job, bruises or other signs of physical abuse, fear or depression, not speaking on their own behalf sometimes because they don't speak English, and a person not having a passport or other forms of identification.

Experts say the show me state's judicial system has shown no tolerance of this type of crime.

"There have been more prosecuted cases of human trafficking in the Western District of Missouri than in any other district in the United States.  Why?  We have a prosecuting attorney in the Western District of Missouri who is saying, not in my state," says Schrage.

But it will take the public, law enforcement, and education to stop this.

"If it was just one group or one organization tackling this, it would be a failure," says Maggie Schade with the Southwest Missouri Antihuman Trafficking Coalition.  "If it was only law enforcement, if it was only the medical community, if it was only organizations or the faith-based or the school districts trying to combat and prevent this, they would fail.  But because we're the Joplin community and because it's just who we are a community, we're all working together."

"And what I can do about it?  Find out what you can do about it and become part of the solution, not just appalled at the problem," says Schrage.

Next year, Missouri law will require anti-human trafficking posters be placed in key areas, like restrooms and truck stops.

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