City in Focus: Kansas City, Missouri
The Biggest Battlefront You’ve Never Heard Of
Kansas City is one of the most unlikely fronts in the battle to end human trafficking. Most people who have heard of human trafficking think of the sex-markets of Thailand, the rock quarries of Bangladesh, the fishing skiffs on Lake Volta, in Ghana, or even child soldiers in Uganda. The savvy activist might even point to Atlanta or Portland as likely hot spots for trafficking in the United States. But not Kansas City.
However, a view from the office of former District Attorney Beth Phillips offers surprising insight. Her window on the north side of the Federal Courthouse in downtown Kansas City overlooks a vista of the vast plain of the American Midwest, just beyond the Missouri River.
Kansas City is the crossroads of America, the intersection of several major highways that will take you almost anywhere you want to go. These snaking highways are precisely why the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation has identified Kansas City as a hub for human trafficking and has selected it for a pilot program that makes it easier for law enforcement at the federal, state, and local level to collaborate to fight trafficking.
Mending the nets
Trafficking is notoriously difficult to combat, a covert hydra that splits into fragments and shape-shifts. The Trafficking Victim Protection Act, a federal law passed in 2000, grouped all of the variegated components under one heading and for the first time gave prosecutors like Beth Phillips, the former US District Attorney for the Western District of Missouri, the tools needed to successfully rescue victims and put traffickers in jail. In 2006 the Western District launched the Human Trafficking Rescue Project, a partnership between police forces at every level from the FBI down to local precincts, and non-profits who provide victim services. This exercise in streamlined justice has the potential to offer a pattern for other cities to close the gaps and fill the cracks that let many trafficking victims slip through the system.
After all, traffickers don’t care about jurisdiction, and while there are federal laws in place to combat trafficking, it falls upon states to implement laws, and local precincts to carry them out. If outfits at every level are not trained to recognize trafficking, officers can be blind to victims hidden in plain sight. And if police forces are not networked in such a way that all the relevant information is shared, justice can easily falter.
Survival sex: the words just shouldn’t go together.
But the lifestyle is incomprehensible. The storyline is grim and predictable: young runaways need food, need shelter, and, lacking education and job skills, these under-18 victims often only have one thing to sell to procure the basics: themselves.
The Chicago Alliance against sexual exploitation estimates that around 4000 children are sexually exploited in the Kansas City area every year, 1650 of which are victims in the Kansas City metro area.
In fact, studies have shown that the average age of entry into prostitution is just 12 years old. That’s not a number from South East Asia. That number comes from Troost Avenue, and Prospect, two of the more notorious prostitution districts in Kansas City.
A 12-year-old selling sex via a pimp is not prostitution: it is trafficking. It is slavery.
It’s one thing to talk about the victims of trafficking; but talking about the men that buy and sell the women and children is quite another.
The reality is that, without the demand for sex, there would be no such thing as prostitution. The most forward thinking voices are those that champion the criminalization of the sex buyer. But Kansas City is seeing an unprecedented collaboration between lawmakers, non-profits, and special interest groups to find the best way forward.
As in most places in America, when a man is caught buying sex, he pays a fine, or maybe he is court mandated to take classes. But if he had sex with a minor in any other context, he would be guilty of a felony punishable by prison.
Fortunately, the tide is changing, and from people in this city—as in many cities—a cry is rising to call a spade, a spade.