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Human Trafficking Summit Sheds Light On Harsh Reality, But Some See No Further Role For Feds

(Rachel Lippmann/St. Louis Public Radio)

The federal government puts St. Louis in the top 20 jurisdictions for human trafficking.

That ranking, as well as a host of other sobering facts about human trafficking came to light during a summit Monday morning in Edwardsville hosted by Republican Congressmen John Shimkus and Rodney Davis of Illinois.

Attendees also learned:

  • As many as 300,000 children nationally are bought and sold for sex a year, with everything from the recruitment to the advertising handled online.
  • The average age of a child sold into the sex trade is 14.
  • The companies that host the advertisements make millions of dollars a month doing so.
  • In June, the FBI offices that work cases on the Missouri and Illinois sides of the metro area rescued three children and arrested two pimps in a nationwide sting.

Shimkus said even though the statistics and the stories he heard filled him with sadness, he said he doesn’t see a way for the federal government to do more to battle the problem.
"My first thought was, 'Geez, we have all these NSA issues, why can't we use those assets in this arena?'" the Collinsville Republican said. "But then the FBI said 'No, we're kind of on top of that.'"

Shimkus said he also wondered whether lawmakers would have a role in making sure that advocacy and social service organizations who work with trafficking victims had the information they needed about the online world.

"How do you get the volunteers, or these other organizations, knowledgeable about what's transpiring?" he said. "But then you've got issues of privacy, and data-sharing. I don't know. The answer is no. I really have nothing that I came away from other than sadness."

Both Shimkus and his co-host, Rodney Davis, said they'd love to find a way to address the demand side of human trafficking, perhaps by publicly shaming those who pay for sex with children. Shimkus, however, admitted that's probably impossible.

"The time, energy and cost to disclose that information, and then the lawsuits and the like, but there is evil in the world and for people to live such a blatant double standard that help feed the demand side of this issue is terrible," he said.

The SAVE Act

At least one of Shimkus's colleagues in the U.S. House does want the government to do more by expanding the definition of human trafficking.  

Missouri Republican Ann Wagner's Stop Advertising Victims of Exploitation (SAVE) Act would add advertising to the section of criminal code that defines trafficking, making it illegal for web sites like Craigslist or Backpage to include ads for sex on their pages.

"There are no civil penalties involved. It does not go after First Amendment rights, it does not touch the Communications Decency Act. This goes straight into the criminal code," Wagner told the panel's audience. 

Wagner's bill cleared the House by a wide margin. Illinois Republican Mark Kirk is sponsoring the Senate version of the SAVE Act, which is currently in the chamber's judiciary committee. A spokeswoman for Kirk said  she's not sure when the committee will begin its review of the bill.

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.

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