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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

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.

One Comment on “City in Focus: Kansas City, Missouri”

  1. Mickie Robinson Farris Says:
    December 12th, 2012 at 8:14 am

    I remember in the 1950’s before malls were built and downtown Emery Birds Thayer, Macy’s, Jones Store, Hartfields, Kline, and Kressky, were a day fun shopping. For special stores and botiques it was Troost shopping area. For my fourth birthday my blue Teddy Bear was found at the children store there. When I moved to Florida in the 1980’s that same area of Troost Strip was will known for drugs and prositution. I never understood why that could not be cleaned up. I lived in Northeast K.C., north of Independence AVE, for one semester I took business courses at Rockhurst college, in the 80s. There was no loop then, I had to drive through a very isolated swope park area or straight down troost. I choose Troost because it was very well lit and police everywhere. Down side, I saw white police actually hitting black
    men in the face and in the groin area and pushing their face into the sidewalk. There was no 911 or cell phones back then. I did not know the full reasons for any of this, I suspect organized crime, The time I saw a bloody black man being held up by two cops and being beat around the head with billy sticks, I did call the K.C. police department when I got home and was told to mind my own business, and stay off Troost.
    I am believing and praying that K.C. will be the biginning of breaking the sex trade. I hope one day to be able to financially monthly partner I believe in you.