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Opinion: Human trafficking is big business in the Ozarks

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Human and sexual trafficking is well documented in news reports and movies from around the globe.

It’s not a problem here in the Ozarks, the so-called Bible Belt of America. Then why do we have at least two organizations and dozens of people committed to fighting human and sexual trafficking right here in our own backyard?

I’ve recently encountered two groups – Night Light International and Go 61 – and faced a new reality that the commercial sex industry is rearing its ugly head behind Springfield’s polished exterior. It’s been described as an under-reported and hidden crime in our community.

Exploring the topic online quickly filled my browser bar with webpage after webpage. There was the 2013 sentencing for a prostitution ring in downtown’s Landmark building, local author Heather Huffman dedicating book proceeds to fight human trafficking, FBI training for area police officers and the 2013 federal sentencing of a Lebanon man for coercing a minor to become a sex slave.

This is big. Bigger than we think. Bigger than we want.

Night Light International is a case in point. The organization has offices where you might expect human trafficking and sexual exploitation persist: Bangkok, Atlanta, Los Angeles – and Branson. Yep, Branson.

Now, you don’t see prostitutes on street corners or strip clubs readily open for business. But it’s there.

“The commercial sex industry in Branson looks pretty different than in most places,” says Savannah Stepp, the director of Night Light operations in Branson. “It happens mostly in the extended stay hotels. Most girls will solicit online.”

That’s not the standard family and American ideals normally pumped out of Branson.

Organizers of Night Light International realized the Branson/Tri-Lakes area is ripe with the five major risk factors for human trafficking: poverty, single-parent homes, drug dealing or usage, child abuse or neglect, and tourism.

Springfield is not immune. The market in the city revolves around strip clubs, according to those doing outreach in the industry.

“There are exploited women with pimps in the clubs or waiting for them at home,” Stepp says of the strip club scene. “The large majority of women are there by choice, but that choice itself is kind of a gray area. If you can’t get another job, and it’s the only thing you know, is that really a choice? Most women we talk to don’t really want to be there, but it’s paying the bills.”

The Night Light group and its 40-some regular volunteers know these stories from months of visiting the clubs on weekend nights. The faith-based organization sends women into the establishments to make friends with dancers and to build them up as individuals created in the image of God. It plants men in the strip club parking lots to pray into the middle of the night on busy weekends. The women bring gifts, baked goods and make connections for mentoring outside of the workplace.

Sex trafficking is no longer something we watch on the big screen as thrilling entertainment or a fight on the other side of the globe.

According to the Justice Department, more human trafficking cases have been prosecuted by federal attorneys in Missouri’s Western District, which includes Springfield, Joplin and Kansas City, than in the other 93 judicial districts. That says it exists, yes, but also that we’re in the fight.

These are the stats that motivate Casey Alvarez, founder of Go 61 in January 2014 after discovering the high number of homeless children in our city and the connections to trafficking crimes. Built on scripture in Isaiah 61 and with a tagline of “reclaiming people,” Go 61 and Alvarez serve as the eyes and ears of the youngest trafficking victims.

How? She calls on the ads of local women selling their services. She asks for interviews and learns what she can to turn over the information to Homeland Security agents and federal law enforcement. About seven out of 10 prostitutes agree to talk with her or the Go 61 team of eight active volunteers, and she’s discovered many of them were exploited as children, perhaps abused or traded for drugs by their parents, foster families or guardian relatives.

“They just followed the natural path for them,” Alvarez says. “Basically, they are aged child trafficking victims.”

Last year, Go 61’s efforts led to 40 cases of suspected child trafficking reported to law enforcement.

Alvarez says it just takes some awareness to make a call. In the group’s outreach education, she teaches the three most risky times for traffickers are during the transporting, obtaining and selling of the victims, and it’s often at restaurants, gas stations and grocery stores. The adult behaviors to watch for include minimal eye contact or conversation, an unkept appearance and tattoos on the neck, a common marking as someone else’s property. She says the signs for children victims are bruises around the mouth or neck, unreasonable fears, malnourishment, sexual aggressiveness, using adult words for body parts and regression in behavior, especially speaking.

She recommends calling the National Human Trafficking Hotline at (888) 373-7888.

“Without addressing it,” Alvarez says, “it will eat our community alive.”

You feel the weight of it just taking a peek inside this industry. It feels wrong even typing the word “industry” to describe it, but that’s what we’ve made of it. It’s grotesque abuse by suffocating power for personal gain.

To be sure, it’s complex. But it’s time our community takes steps to fight against this modern slavery. We can no longer claim ignorance.

Springfield Business Journal Editor Eric Olson can be reached at eolson@sbj.net.[[In-content Ad]]

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