JEFFERSON CITY—As the Missouri General Assembly takes on the battle against human trafficking, two former victims wait to hear whether their testimonies will help save others from the abuse and exploitation they experienced.
House Bill 214, filed by Rep. Anne Zerr, R-St. Charles, has been joined by a companion bill in the Senate, SB 331, which was introduced Feb. 23. Its sponsors are Sens. John Lamping, R-Ladue, and Jack Goodman, R-Mt. Vernon.
The proposed legislation takes aim at those who control others through force, coercion, blackmail and other means. It allows for victims to cite trafficking as a defense if they are arrested for prostitution and provides for penalties for the traffickers.
Rep. Zerr’s bill was voted “Do Pass” out of the House’s Crime Prevention and Public Safety Committee and is expected to come before the full House in the near future.
Margaret Howard of the St. Louis area and Kristy Childs of the Kansas City area gave their testimonies several weeks ago before the House committee.
Howard became a victim of human trafficking when she ran away from home at age 13. She was kidnapped, held in a house, drugged, and raped repeatedly for five days. She knows now that she was probably traded to a pimp for drugs.
While she and another girl managed to escape, the shame and horror of her experience kept her from telling anyone the whole story. “I was too ashamed,” she said. “Just like rape victims, we think it’s our fault.”
It wasn’t until age 30 that she told her story for the first time as part of a therapy group.
Only in the last few years has she begun to grasp the full intensity of what happened to her nearly 40 years ago, and she likens her responses to that of those who return from war with post traumatic stress disorder.
“What happens to the mind and to the brain is trauma. The mind and body reaction is the same as any other torture,” she said.
Howard is currently finishing her master’s degree in social work at Washington University in St. Louis with an emphasis on human trafficking and a desire to help its victims.
Childs ran away from home at age 12 to escape an abusive situation, came under the control of a pimp, and ended up spending 24 years “in the industry.” It almost took her life.
“When I tried to get out, I had nowhere to turn,” she said. Her escape, she now says, was “a God thing.”
“I had been praying to die for several years. There was a moment when God spoke to my spirit and a light came on. Hope was alive, and I knew He was providing a way out for me.
“If I hadn’t escaped, I’m absolutely positive I would have killed myself,” she said.
Childs explained that girls under age 18 working in the sex industry are considered victims, but adults are victims as well. They have the same history (of abuse).
With no life skills, they are at the mercy of their pimps – on whom they develop a dependency – and are trapped in a life of prostitution.
The biggest obstacle to stopping trafficking in the sex industry, Childs said, is demand. “Demand is what creates the profits. Demand brings about the recruitment of victims,” she said.
Childs no longer considers herself a survivor; she’s a leader. As the founder and executive director of Veronica’s Voice, a non-profit recovery program dedicated solely to victims of prostitution and commercial sexual exploitation, she has seen things changing for the better, but slowly.
“We are not going to find and save all these children,” she said.
BARBARA SHOUN/contributing writer