By Kathryn Rice

January is “National Human Trafficking Prevention Month” and the thought that it only happens in large cities couldn’t be further from the truth, said North Star Advocacy Center personnel.

North Star’s Executive Director Linda Mattson and Court Victim Advocate and Volunteer Coordinator Meghann Kosman discussed human trafficking and its similarities to domestic violence.

“People are groomed,” Mattson said. “They are a personal target, they are befriended either in-person or online. The targeting person spots and capitalizes on vulnerabilities.

“Locally a young mother is kicked out, then is taken in by someone who pressures her into sex,” Mattson said. “Adult parents will allow someone time with a child in exchange for money or drugs. It is happening very frequently. The person feels trapped by their vulnerabilities.”

“Be aware of what you’re telling people online: a family member dying, losing your job,” Kosman said. “This can make you seem vulnerable. It often begins subtly with innocence and caring then turns bad.”

People need to be aware of victim blaming in human trafficking, the same as in sexual assault and domestic assault. Check on the bias that the situation is viewed and the difference between how a child and an adult are seen. The more isolated a person becomes the more vulnerable they are to human trafficking.

One thing people can do if trafficking is suspected is to offer resources found locally, Catholic Charities, Community Services, North Star Advocacy Center and The Source.

“The person may be scared to leave,” Mattson said. “They may not reach out to take it. If you reach out, you may not get the response you expect.”

These scenarios are parallel to domestic violence many times.

North Star is not a mandated official reporter. Its personnel can help with a plan. All of the staff are certified application assistants and can help victims apply for the Safe at Home program. This program through the Missouri Secretary of State’s office allows “survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, rape, human trafficking, stalking or other crimes stay safe by providing a designated address to use when creating new public records.”

The North Star staff is willing to give some real facts about human trafficking. The center is located at 1220 East Second Street, Maryville, and the phone number is 660.562.2320.

The Missouri State Highway Patrol said signs of human trafficking are not always obvious and may include:

• The presence of an older “boyfriend” or “girlfriend;”

• Travel with an older male/female who isn’t a guardian;

• Signs of psychological coercion, such as depression, anxiety and/or an overly submissive attitude;

• Lack of control over his/her schedule, money and/or items proving identification;

• Physical trauma including bruises, cuts, burns, scars;

• Poor health;

• Coached/rehearsed responses to questions;

• Substance abuse or addictions, selling drugs; or

• Homelessness.

MoDOT indicated the National Human Trafficking Hotline reported there were 240 human trafficking cases reported in Missouri in 2021. Kosman said actual cases were higher.

Individuals who suspect someone is being forced to engage in any activity from which they can’t leave, whether it is commercial sex, housework, farm work or other activity should reach out. The National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline number is 1.888.373.7888 or text BeFree.