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In St. Louis, a push for greater awareness of human trafficking’s toll

Advocate and author Christine McDonald, right, listens to U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner of Missouri testify during a public hearing in St. Louis about human trafficking.
File photo | Durrie Bouscaren | St. Louis Public Radio
Advocate and author Christine McDonald, right, listens to U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner of Missouri testify during a 2015 public hearing in St. Louis about human trafficking.

Eastern Missouri has four full-time police officers dedicated to investigating human trafficking cases, but convictions are rare.

Law enforcement officials say it's hard to build cases against perpetrators because witnesses are few and victims often are unseen. To improve awareness, Webster University will hold a training session this weekend for law students and the general public. Attendees will hear how people are forced into sex work and other trades, and how to identify warning signs.

“Most of the victims we encounter, they’ve been in the grocery stores with you, they work at your favorite restaurants,” said Ashley Martin, a staff attorney for Legal Services of Eastern Missouri who will help lead the session. “It doesn’t do a service to our victims if the only thing we think about when we hear human trafficking, is someone who’s chained in a basement.”

The event is organized through Webster University and the Archway chapter of The Links Inc.

“This whole event is just trying to make people more vigilant,” said organizer Robin Higgins, who chairs the university's legal studies department. “Because you can’t combat human trafficking unless you can identify what’s going on. You have to be able to see the red flags.”

Statistics on human trafficking are hard to come by. But 135 cases of human trafficking in Missouri were reported to the National Human Trafficking Hotline last year. The majority of calls were made by a community member or victim of trafficking.

"The more we learn collectively about the issues, the more we all can be a voice and just maybe we can help someone," wrote Susan Buford, president of the Archway chapter. 

A new Missouri law requires law enforcement to report arrests related to human trafficking each year. Sgt. Adam Kavanaugh, who commands the Human Trafficking Task Force for the Eastern District of Missouri, said that even though convictions on human trafficking charges are rare, prosecutors will often convict perpetrators on related charges, such as child pornography or transporting minors across state lines.  

“For us, it always comes down to personnel, being able to handle the flux,” Kavanaugh said. “We have more than we can handle … and we have here in St. Louis County, one of the bigger [units] that I’m aware of.”

If you go:

What: Understanding and combating human trafficking

When: 9 a.m. to 12 p.m., Saturday

Where: Webster University’s Winfred Moore Auditorium, 470 East Lockwood Ave., Webster Groves

To register, click here.

Follow Durrie on Twitter: @durrieB.