Human trafficking occurs in every corner of the world, whether it’s the busy streets of a metropolitan city, a developing country or in your own hometown.
This horrific crime is real, and it affects more people than we realize. According to the State Department’s 2020 Trafficking in Persons Report, in 2019, the United States, Canada and the other countries that make up North, South and Central America identified more than 12,350 individuals who were victims of human trafficking. The same report indicated human trafficking occurs in every state of the U.S. — not just in big cities, but all across our country.
Victims of trafficking aren’t only forced to work in prostitution; they are unwillingly thrown into a myriad of industries against their will, including agriculture, construction, hospitality, child care and numerous others. The State Department’s report also pointed to the fact that in the United States, children in the child welfare and juvenile justice system, including those in foster care, are among the groups of individuals who are most vulnerable to human trafficking. As a mother and grandmother, this breaks my heart. Each of these individuals had their humanity taken from them in an attempt to control their lives for someone else’s gain.
In order to hold those accountable for committing these heinous acts, the Missouri General Assembly has passed several measures over the years to shine a bright light on human trafficking in Missouri. In 2018, the General Assembly passed House Bill 1246. This legislation required the Department of Public Safety to develop posters and other materials containing important resources designed to help victims of trafficking. The legislation, which was signed into law, requires these posters to be displayed in places where trafficking could occur, such as truck stops, in restrooms and other places.
In 2019, I was proud to sponsor legislation that helped victims of trafficking recover and get back on their feet. As a part of House Bill 397, my Senate Bill 361 ensured victims of trafficking are indeed considered victims and provided with rehabilitative services, rather than viewed as perpetrators of crimes they were forced to commit.
Under this legislation, minors forced into prostitution are legally classified as victims of abuse and afforded the same protections currently available to victims of child abuse. It also expanded the definition of criminal street gang activity to include crimes involving sex trafficking and child abuse. By adding criminal street gang offenses relating to prostitution and sex trafficking to our laws, we ensured the chain of command involved in organized child trafficking are held accountable and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
Finally, this bill included language allowing for the expunging of criminal records for victims younger than 18 who were forced to commit these horrific acts. I was thankful to see this legislation signed into law because it sends an important message to the victims of trafficking — it’s not your fault.
On Oct. 22, I was honored to join Sen. Mike Bernskoetter in presenting a Senate resolution to a group of high school girls who are working to bring awareness to human trafficking in Mid-Missouri. The Z-Club, a high school affiliate of Zonta International, provides young women with the opportunity to develop leadership skills and find meaningful careers while encouraging its members to participate in community, school and international service projects.
A key mission of the Z-Club is to bring awareness to the issue of human trafficking and support organizations, like the Central Missouri Stop Human Trafficking Coalition, that aim to make a difference in our community. These young women are working hard to shine a bright light on an issue that causes so much pain for so many people throughout our world. I was proud to meet with this impressive group of young leaders and discuss ways we can bring awareness to this tragic crime in Missouri.
As I look forward to the 2021 legislative session, I am committed to working on legislation that continues to crack down on those who wish to coerce and exploit others for commercial gain. Trafficking has no place in our society, and I will continue to do everything I can to empower victims and give law enforcement the tools they need to prosecute those who participate and support human trafficking.
It is an honor to be your state senator, and my door is always open to your concerns, questions or comments. Please feel free to contact me at 573-751-2757 or visit my web page at senate.mo.gov/riddle.
Missouri Sen. Jeanie Riddle represents District 10, which includes Callaway County.