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Missouri's new child sex trafficking law takes effect after years of criticism

 Rep. Ed Lewis, who sponsored the original bill this year regarding child sex trafficking in 202.
Tim Bommel
Missouri House Communications
Rep. Ed Lewis, who sponsored the original bill this year regarding child sex trafficking in 202.

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.

The state’s policy efforts against trafficking ranked in the bottom half of states and earned a grade of F from the nonprofit Shared Hope International last year.

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.

Rep. Ed Lewis, R-Moberly, sponsored the original bill this year regarding child sex trafficking. He said his goal was to clarify the complicated treatment of sexually exploited minors in the legal system — and to put the onus explicitly on the Missouri Department of Social Services, or DSS, to oversee the issue.

One goal was to “spell out” to DSS, he said, that “You will do it this way, this is your job,” regarding oversight of child trafficking. Many of the provisions, Lewis said at an early hearing, merely formalized “what is supposed to be going on” already.

“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

Law enforcement under the new law must report suspected victims of child sex trafficking immediately to Children’s Division, the child welfare arm of the Department of Social Services.

Children’s Division is then responsible for ensuring the child’s immediate safety and investigating the complaint.

“The cornerstone of this bill is that it helps everyone in the state have a unified standard — to know what they are going to do, to do the reporting,” said Shima Rostami, executive director of Gateway Human Trafficking, a St. Louis-based nonprofit focused on anti human trafficking advocacy and education.

Previously, Rostami said, there were “gaps concerning reporting procedures.”

“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.

The bill is only the latest attempt by lawmakers to improve the state’s child sex trafficking laws.

In 2017, a bill changed the definition of child abuse to include trafficking, giving Children’s Division the authority to handle a wider range of cases committed not only by the child’s caregivers.

But DSS has not dedicated a staff person to oversee child sex trafficking issues, Lewis said, which he says is necessary to ensure the department remains accountable on handling those issues.

“I asked [DSS]: ‘Do you have a list of how many people were sex trafficked’?” Lewis said. “And they’d say ‘no.’ How can you not have that [data] if you’re the one in charge?”

Lewis said DSS officials have since guaranteed they would “set aside a person that’s in charge” of overseeing child sex trafficking issues and investigating those cases as the department implements the law.

DSS did not respond to requests for comment or questions on their progress in designating a staff member to specialize in child sex trafficking work.

A study earlier this yearfrom 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.

Those staffing issues, according to the study, have led some states to designate a smaller set of specialized staff to deal with trafficking issues, which, according to Lewis, Missouri plans to pursue.

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 lack of education, she said, means many cases can go unseen and unreported.

“A problem is a huge lack of awareness among community members, including professionals,” Rostami said.

Amy Robins, forensic services program director at the Child Advocacy Center of Northeast Missouri, one of the centers which conducts interviews for children who are victims of abuse and neglect, said she loves the intentions behind the new law, “there just needs to be a lot more collaboration among the agencies and a lot more training,.”

Robins said her group trains law enforcement on child sex trafficking, but that training makes up just four hours of the 2,400 hours they train.

“And I don’t know if there’s even another law enforcement academy that does four,” she said — many might not do that kind of training at all.

Crucial to the success of the new law will be making sure everyone involved — from Children’s Division to law enforcement — are “fully equipped to deal with all levels of trauma this population has experienced,” said Erica Koegler, assistant professor at the school of social work at University of Missouri-St. Louis, who studies human trafficking.

“Are there sufficient numbers of people trained in supporting child victims of human trafficking, to make sure that they don’t cause more trauma to the children?” she said. “They need really safe spaces where they aren’t going to be harmed further.”

This story was originally published on the Missouri Independent.

Copyright 2022 KCUR 89.3. To see more, visit KCUR 89.3.

Clara Bates