Force, Fraud and Deception

In America’s heartland, victims of ‘modern-day slavery’ are mostly hidden from view. A determined MU scholar aims to change that. By Natalie Fieleke. Photos by Nicholas Benner

“The victims of modern-day slavery have many faces,” says MU’s Deborah Hume, co-chair of the Central Missouri Stop Human Trafficking Coalition.

“It could be a child from rural Missouri forced into prostitution in Kansas City or a child from rural Ghana forced into the cocoa industry,” Hume says. “It could be an immigrant to the United States, undocumented or legal, who has been defrauded by an ostensible employer in a restaurant or hotel or factory or farm. It could be a runaway teenager or a mail-order bride who, instead of promised security or love, finds herself a captive, unable to leave the home, forced to endure brutality, endless labor or sexual slavery.”

The United Nations International Labor Organization estimates that more than 12 million adults and children worldwide are victims of human trafficking — the acquisition of people by means of force, fraud or deception with the goal of exploiting them for profit.

Shackled wrists and ankles once symbolized the international slave trade. Today we live among more subtle, but no less cruel, markers of contemporary bondage: circumspect women bathed in the lurid glow of a roadside motel; slumped men cutting melons in a sun-blasted farm field; hollow-eyed youths loitering inside an urban Greyhound depot.

In May, the University of Missouri was one of 10 institutions nationwide to receive $100,000 of a $2 million grant to combat human trafficking through the federal Administration for Children and Families. The renewable grant funding will allow Hume, an assistant teaching professor in MU’s public health program, to join with agencies in 13 mid-Missouri counties to raise public awareness of trafficking, to identify victims and to connect these victims to services.

“Even though it’s hard to think of trafficking happening in our own communities, this grant will enable us to raise public awareness of the modern-day slaves living among us,” Hume said. “If everyday people know the signs they can look for, then this could aid law enforcement in investigating the individuals responsible, and it could aid us in connecting victims to the services they need to recover.”

Hume is a social psychologist who studies both the “root behaviors” that may lead to victimization—generally defined as the ways individuals are influenced by others—and coercion, how victims find themselves forced or tricked into trafficking situations.

Before coming to teach at MU in the fall of 2003, Hume taught psychology and women’s studies courses at Stephens College. In her courses, she led students to examine labor issues and sweat shops, historical and contemporary labor practices that exploited women.

She also became aware of work by Sheila Wellstone and others on trafficking of women and girls in Asia. But it was only when she attended Stop Traffic Now, a conference hosted by MU students in the spring of 2008 to raise awareness of human trafficking, that all the pieces came together. Following the conference, she joined with the students, community members and law enforcement to form the Central Missouri Stop Human Trafficking Coalition, or CMSHTC.

“So many are working in conditions that early 20th century labor movements were trying to do away with, such as child labor and exploitative practices,” Hume said. “Unfortunately, those practices are back.”

Human trafficking, she says, is not just an egregious violation of human rights, it’s a public health problem affecting both victims and those with whom they come in contact.

A truck stop at night

Corridors of Confinement: Mobility and anonymity combine to make the nation’s Interstate highways and some businesses that locate along them prime locations for hiding trafficking victims in plain sight.

“There are malnutrition, sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV and hepatitis, other infectious diseases like tuberculosis, and then there are the consequences of physical and emotional abuse,” Hume says.

Kevin Bales, president of the Washington D.C.-based nonprofit organization Free the Slaves, and author of the 2004 book Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy, illustrates trafficking’s potential public health implications with an example of exploitation that sounds like a set piece from a Dickens novel. A group of teenage boys from Zambia, many ill with contagious diseases, were trafficked into the United States and forced to become part of a boys’ choir. As they traveled the country performing in churches, the boys stayed with host families.

“Not only did the boys themselves need treatment,” Bales says, “but the idea that we’ve got them exposing [host family members and congregants] to serious infectious diseases is not good for anybody.”

Moreover, he says, such incidents pose a risk to public health care workers. This is because victims and their captors tend to use public health services when ill or injured.

Such exposures may have a silver lining, however. “Public health professionals are more likely than most people to come into contact with victims. A number of cases have been broken because public health workers have figured something out.”

Hume says the first step for her and her coalition colleagues is determining which groups might benefit from education and providing training that could help these groups identify victims. In an instance of sex trafficking, for example, a victim likely won’t have his own ID or legal documents because his captor has confiscated them.

Another tell-tale sign, Hume says, is a worker who never seems to leave his workplace, or one who seems to never engage even casually with his neighbors.

For law enforcement especially, connecting the dots is crucial, Hume says. “Law enforcement, social services and health professionals are on the front line. If they see something and don’t have the schema to start asking questions, they might interpret trafficking as smuggling or illegal immigration or prostitution.”

The federal grant funding will provide police and other agencies with the means to conduct stepped-up surveillance in cases where trafficking is suspected. When victims are identified, Hume’s coalition will help steer them toward help provided by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Rescue and Restore Program. Through this program, foreign-born adults and children can become certified victims of human trafficking, enabling them to receive the same federal benefits and services as refugees: shelter, legal assistance, job training and health care.

Tim Thomason, an officer with the Columbia Police Department’s community services unit, says the money also allows the department to provide advanced training in human trafficking. “Budgets are tight, and unless you have people trained in this, it isn’t something that our street cops have the time and the resources to investigate,” Thomason says.

From January 2007 to September 2008, the Justice Department’s Human Trafficking Reporting System recorded 1,229 suspected incidents of human trafficking, including both U.S. citizens and foreign nationals. Perhaps not surprisingly, most incidents occurred in large cities, chiefly Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Washington, D.C., and New York. Close to 82 percent involved the sexual exploitation of victims. Twelve percent involved forced labor, usually in fields, factories and the service industry, such as hotels, restaurants and nail salons where victims can often be hidden in plain sight due to language barriers and social norms, Hume says.

Hume and other victim’s advocates say anecdotal reports confirm that trafficking is happening in mid-Missouri. The extent of the problem here, as elsewhere, is difficult to determine.

One reason numbers are scarce, says Linda Smith, president and founder of advocacy group Shared Hope International, involves problems identifying and classifying victims. Few obtain “trafficked status” as defined by the federal government because the certifying process can be arduous. Potential foreign victims must work with a case manager through the Office of Refugee Resettlement to become certified. The process involves coordinating the efforts of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, law enforcement, social service agencies and the federal government. In most situations, the victim must be willing to cooperate with law enforcement to be certified and qualify for a T-visa, a special visa for trafficking victims.

Empty road at night

Motel stairs with vending machine

Another reason, Smith says, is that in many cases, especially those involving young women forced to work as prostitutes, traffickers lead victims to believe that they themselves are to blame.

“Once they [traffickers] get them and convince them that they provide shelter and safety, they’re more of a prisoner of war,” Smith says. “They’re beaten one moment, given food and a kind word the next. Then when girls are arrested, they rarely confirm to the police that the pimp has authority over them. He’s established a new truth in a formative brain.”

Paul Schlup is a special investigator for the Cole County prosecutor’s office who also serves as a law enforcement liaison for CMSHTC. He says he knows of many cases that could be classified as trafficking, including forced prostitution in massage parlors and at truck stops, as well as forced labor in the hotel and restaurant industries.

Schlup, a former federal agent of the U.S. Treasury Department, says trafficking cases are some of the most challenging he’s seen during his 31-year law enforcement career. At the treasury department, Schlup says, he became involved in trafficking cases because traffickers are also likely to be involved in laundering money. Most also fail to pay taxes on their illegal gains.

“There is so much pre-planning that goes into rescuing a victim and prosecuting the perpetrators of a crime,” says Schlup. “If you’re rescuing a foreign victim you need to know their language, then you need to see social services involved so they can help you get housing, food, a job, counseling and medical care. The coalition’s job is to make all these social services agencies aware so it can get reported and get victims assistance and help.”

Kelley Lucero, outreach coordinator and victim advocate for The Shelter, a Columbia facility that houses victims of domestic and sexual violence, says her organization works with at least a few people each year that it considers to be victims of human trafficking.

Each morning for the past five years, Lucero has gone online to visit the local sheriff’s department web site. There she methodically checks overnight arrest records, knowing that some of the women charged with prostitution, especially those with foreign-sounding names, may actually be victims of sex trafficking.

Lucero described a 2007 incident in which The Shelter was able to intervene in the case of a 54-year-old Chinese woman who was arrested for prostitution. The woman arrived in the United States thinking she was to participate in a cultural exchange program. Instead she was transported to the Midwest and forced into the sex trade, Lucero says.

From January 2007 to September 2008, the Justice Department’s Human Trafficking Reporting System recorded 1,229 suspected incidents of human trafficking... Close to 82 percent involved the sexual exploitation of victims.

“She asked ‘What would I do if I called for help?’” Lucero says. “They didn’t have 911 in China. How would she get a hold of her family? If there’s a different process for getting help, they’re not going to know that.” Because the prosecutor in the case understood the woman was likely a victim, he set a high cash bail to deter traffickers who might otherwise have sought to reclaim her.

Unfortunately, such interventions are rare. Most incarcerated trafficking victims are bailed out by morning, moved to a new location — frequently a massage parlor near a truck stop — and put back to work, Lucero says. This is why training police to recognize the signs of trafficking is so important, she adds.

Lucero hopes MU’s grant might raise the public’s awareness of potential trafficking situations and that this greater awareness will lead more citizens to report suspicious behavior to authorities.

“How did this person who doesn’t even speak English come to work at this truck stop?” Lucero says. “Call someone like the national hotline and let them figure it out. It will come back to the local law enforcement jurisdiction. Trafficking is in your backyard.”

Truck stops and their immediate environs are the most likely places to spot trafficking victims in mid-Missouri because of Interstate 70’s prominence as a transit route, say victim’s advocates, Smith, Shared Hope’s president, says her organization has confirmed sex trafficking is taking place along major trucking routes such as those that pass through Missouri. And five years ago Bales’ organization, Free the Slaves, conducted a study for the Justice Department that found gas stations catering to trucks tended to be a common stopping point for trafficked victims.

Neighborhood at night. Dead end sign

More recently, reports of trafficking in Missouri have centered on the Kansas City area. In April 2008, Shared Hope produced a report documenting 84 U.S. child victims of sex trafficking from a study it conducted as a part of a task force in conjunction with law enforcement in Independence, Missouri. In July 2009, thanks in part to the task force’s continued work, a Mississippi man plead guilty in Kansas City to federal charges for the attempted sex trafficking of a child.

Hume says she hopes such successful enforcement operations will provide a more complete picture of trafficking in the region.

“If we think about trafficking at all in the U.S., we typically think about it in port cities and on the East and West Coasts,” Hume says. “Recent events make us realize it’s happening in the Midwest as well.”

For his part, Kevin Bales says his experience leads him to believe Hume is on the right track.

“We’ve learned that while very dramatic things can happen at the national level, that when you really want to remove slavery completely and forever it works best to do it at a community level,” Bales says. It has to be rooted out where it exists. The task force model, when it’s working right, is the most effective thing we’ve got in the United States.”

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