Latest phase in human trafficking crackdown targeting St. Louis

Monday, May 23, 2005

ST. LOUIS -- Human trafficking doesn't usually come to mind as a crime that might affect St. Louis or eastern Missouri. But experts say it does exist here, albeit buried deeply.

"The minute you start talking about it, individuals in the community will say, 'I may know somebody who may be a victim," said Suzanne LeLaurin, vice president of the International Institute, a refugee resettlement agency. "The victims are so controlled by traffickers, it's difficult to find them until you start doing assertive outreach and investigation.

"As soon as you start doing that, you find them."

On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services will be in St. Louis -- the initiative's 13th city -- to launch the latest phase of the government's crackdown on human trafficking.

The campaign, called "Rescue and Restore Victims of Human Trafficking," seeks to educate Missourians about trafficking and how they can identify and help victims in their community.

"Our view is that there is a set of people, organizations, and intermediaries who encounter victims and just don't know it," said Steve Wagner, director of HHS' human trafficking program.

"If people in juvenile justice, child protective services, public defenders, immigrant advocacy, ethnic- and faith-based organizations are aware of the phenomenon, and know what to do and how to recognize them, we'll increase the rate of identifying traffickers," Wagner said.

Since passage of the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act in 2000, three victims in Missouri have been identified and helped with federal benefits used to persuade them to tell their story. More have been helped by community organizations, but have not yet come forward to law enforcement.

The law requires victims to tell their story to police and prosecutors to access services, Wagner said.

Trafficking is the exploitation of any person for forced labor or commercial sex. Victims, who often are brought from overseas, might end up in sweatshops, domestic servitude, restaurants, laundries or in agricultural work -- or in prostitution, pornography, strip clubs, escort services and massage parlors.

Any child under 18 involved in commercial sex is considered to be trafficked, regardless of his or her consent.

Wagner said traffickers' main tool is fear rather than physical bondage. Some telltale signs are persons extremely fearful of engaging in conversation, or who travel with a shadowy companion who makes sure they don't speak.

Emergency room staff might look for evidence of beatings, sexually transmitted diseases, or lack of documentation.

"Victims are still taken to ERs and health clinics, because traffickers need to protect their investment," Wagner said.

Gedlu Metaferia, who heads the African Mutual Assistance Association in St. Louis, met one such victim here in 1995, a woman from his home country of Ethiopia.

"This lady was very afraid," he said. "She came to my office, saying she was with a Saudi family in Illinois, and that, 'I want to escape.'

"I asked, 'From what?' She said, 'They don't pay me. I take care of their children. They won't give me my passport."'

Metaferia said he referred the woman to free legal services but never heard from her again.

Last September, the U.S. Department of Justice was in St. Louis to announce it was coordinating local policing and prosecution of the federal crime. It also held workshops for professionals and local groups likely to encounter victims.

The goal is for law enforcement and social service providers to work together, said U.S. Attorney James Martin in St. Louis. He said a federal trafficking law not only makes it easier to prosecute traffickers, but also to help victims.

"Once we had our initial rollout, we got significant feedback from lawyers, the public and service providers," Martin said. "They said, 'we know this is going on."'

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