SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — Labor and sex trafficking may not be issues you think exist in the Ozarks, and many might be victims and not realize it.
One specific group that is already lacking support from family or the community can become an easy target for perpetrators.
Youth workers at Rare Breed, a resource center for homeless youth in Springfield say when it comes to labor and sex trafficking in this area, there seems to be a disconnect between awareness and reality and the only way to successfully fight back is to bridge that gap.
“There’s this disbelief, maybe that it doesn’t happen here or we are better than that, or something like that,” said Jenny Reynolds, youth worker at Rare Breed.
She says the issue is a frequent reality.
“And it has nothing to do with what we’re saying about the people who live here. It’s the privilege of you going to Walmart, you go to church, you go to your job, you don’t see it because it’s not in your neighborhood,” she said.
Springfield’s location along I-44 makes the city a vulnerable target to labor and sex trafficking. And while victims are not all homeless youth, the group is at a higher at risk.
“They’re more at risk for everything,” said Reynolds. “Because they don’t have the same resources as everyone else.”
Many of the youth who come by Rare Breed fall victim to either labor or sex trafficking.
“It would be mainly the labor trafficking that we see here,” said Samantha Sudduth, housing coordinator at Rare Breed.
“For example, we have a lot of people who come on to the side of the building, they pull into the parking lot and they’ll roll down the window and say ‘hey, I need 6 guys to work at the carnival.’ And the kids are like, ‘hey, I need a job. I need money, that’s great.’ So, then they’ll go with them and then things happen and they’ll travel to another city and then abandon the kids there,” said Reynolds.
Reynolds says too often homeless youth don’t have the proper documentation.
“Because they were thrown out in the middle of the night, they don’t have social security cards, ID’s, those sorts of things,” she said. “Until we can get those for them, they can’t get a job.”
Others may find themselves entrapped in the world of sex trafficking.
“If our youth are living on the streets, or couch hopping, they might meet someone who says ‘you can stay with me, if you do x, y and z’,” said Sudduth.
Most sex trafficking situations start as a romantic relationship, but soon the “boyfriend” becomes a pimp.
Sudduth says the most challenging part is getting youth to recognize they are in an unsafe situation.
“It’s very rare that they just outright come out and say ‘I am involved in sex trafficking’,” she said.
Staff at Rare Breed know to watch out for signs, but their most important tool is relationship building.
“If they gave us just a little bit of information the first time and we accepted them, then the second time they might give us a little more information so that we can continue to help them in the best way possible,” said Sudduth.
Through a support system found at Rare Breed, Reynolds says the youth slowly try to come out of a situation themselves.
“They come in and they want to file a report. I call the police, even if nothing happens,” said Reynolds. “Each time they are building one more block on trusting us.”
Reynolds says the next step is to expand that trust from Rare Breed’s building into the community.
“I think the mentality is that if someone is involved in sex trafficking it’s because they want to be, they want to make money, or they want to live that lifestyle,” Sudduth said. “We see it as our youth are being forced. The same respect that we give domestic violence victims, we have to give to these victims, because they are being threatened to stay in those situations,”
And Sudduth says it starts with recognizing that it can happen anywhere and not being afraid to say it aloud.
“We want our youth to be more comfortable talking about it because our community is more comfortable talking about it,” she said.