KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Amanda Nonamaker lost everything that ever mattered to her.
She said she lost custody of her son, control over her meth addiction, and her faith in God.
“I’ve already lost everything else,” she said. “Let’s go get high one more time.”
Nonamaker, who lived in Texas at the time, decided to pick up her then-boyfriend from a party and take drugs – the biggest mistake she has ever made, she said, and one that almost cost her her freedom and her life.
“I went and picked him up,” she said. “He said, ‘Give me your keys. I don’t like you driving.’”
She said he drove them back to his house where he locked her in a room and held her captive for nearly three months, where she said she was repeatedly raped and eventually sold into sex slavery.
When she finally escaped, she said police in Texas didn’t believe she was a victim of human trafficking. It wasn’t until she made it to Missouri that she was able to get help.
Nonamaker isn’t alone.
Between 2015 and 2019, 594 cases of sex trafficking were reported to the National Human Trafficking Hotline in Missouri, a resource provided by non-profit organization Polaris, which connects survivors of human trafficking to victim services.
Its data shows the number of sex trafficking cases reported in Missouri increased by roughly 30% in just one year, from 179 reported cases in 2018, to 233 cases in 2019.
The federal government spent $101 million in taxpayer dollars to combat human trafficking just last year, funding law enforcement training on how to treat women working in the sex trade as victims, rather than criminals.
St. Joseph Police Sergeant Jason Strong, said training has changed his understanding and approach to prostitution.
Strong is part of the Missouri attorney general’s human trafficking task force, which was established in April 2017 under then-Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley.
“They [victims] think they’re in control of their situation,” Strong said. “Sometimes, they have drug-addicted parents, come from low socioeconomic [situations], not very many opportunities.”
“The trafficker might promise them a better life where they get their hair done, they get their nails done, they get nice things, new cellular telephones. It doesn’t start out in the hotel room all the time.”
Kristen Siler-Kline, a community mental health liaison, is now embedded within the St. Joseph’s Police Department. She goes out on calls, helping police interact with victims and get them the services they need to heal.
“It’s nice that we can respond because we are not in uniform,” Siler-Kline said. “Some people, seeing police can be triggering for them.”
What’s happening in St. Joseph is encouraging to Nonamaker who years later can still vividly recall the way police treated her the day she escaped.
She said it was angering and humiliating.
After being abused for months, Nonamaker managed to escape after awaking in the night to two women shaking her.
“They drive me to this other location, and at this point, I felt uncomfortable,” she said. “I haven’t been fed, haven’t been given water. I’m losing a lot of weight.”
Nonamaker said she asked to go to a hospital and the women refused to take her.
“I think they were in on it,” she said. “They were trying to hurt me.”
Nonamaker said one of the women pulled a knife out and started coming at her. Frozen for a moment, she finally took off running.
“All I remember doing is I took off running,” she said. “I make it under a physical rehab building that said, ‘911.’ I’m standing under the sign, pointing up for somebody to call 911 for me.”
When law enforcement arrived, Nonamaker said she was angered by the officer’s lax nature in providing her evidence that he was an officer. She said she needed more than seeing a badge to prove she was safe.
“I’m scared to talk to the police because of what I just went through,” she said. “He [the officer] tells me I’m acting funny because I didn’t want to get close to him. I was asking him for police evidence to prove to me that he was a cop, and he pointed to a plastic star on his collar.”
Nonamaker said the officer did not listen and instead took her to jail, arresting her for public intoxication.
“On my way to jail, I remember telling the officer, ‘Sir, this is a big misunderstanding. I’ve been abducted, like, I just escaped. You’re gonna bring me back to the man who did this to me. You’re gonna hurt me,’” she said.
The officer told Nonamaker she could talk to a female arresting officer at the jailhouse, but upon arrival, she said she was tossed in a jail cell and told, “I am not concerned about you.”
“They threw me in the holding tank,” she said. “I told them how I needed a rape kit done. I’ve been raped. They still didn’t take me to the emergency room to get a rape kit. They completely dismissed everything I said.”
By the time she made it to jail, Nonamaker said she weighed 88 pounds.
“I looked like a skeleton,” she said. “I hadn’t been fed.”
A New Approach
James Wright, Homeland Security Investigations Deputy Special Agent in Charge, said law enforcement should take a victim-centered approach when handling sex crimes in general. But when it comes to human trafficking, he said it is especially urgent.
“You could be arresting a victim, and their trafficker be the one that’s bailing them out and taking them right back into that world,” he said. “You have to have that victim-centered approach, and really ask the questions and pay attention to when the arrests do happen.”
Strong said police officers have a duty to not only educate the public on what human trafficking is, but also to address human trafficking by educating themselves and conducting enforcement work.
“It’s the goal not to arrest them,” he said. “That’s the goal, that they identify as a victim, that we provide them services immediately on the scene. We know that they’re likely not going to take it. In fact, I think that, oftentimes, they’ll come into services five to 10 times over before they decide to take it.”
Strong said YMCA facilities provide victims with shelter, daycare, and financial resources to help them get out of trafficking situations. He said most officers are not even aware of victim services in their area, or how hard it is for a victim to accept they have been exploited and abused in the first place.
“I try to talk to the new officers, ‘If you had to leave tomorrow, like a fleeting, asteroid-mining situation, you couldn’t just up and leave,’” he said. “‘You got kids, you have work, your clothes, your property. It’s not always that easy,’ There’s that mental manipulation where you just feel like you can’t leave.”
He also said embedding mental health liaisons within a police department can especially help law enforcement’s outreach and community engagement.
He said police departments need to step up their game.
“You wouldn’t believe how they [our officers] support these programs,” he said. “They engage with these mental health liaisons every day. They’re part of everything that we do at the police department. It’s a great collaboration because it’s putting the resources where they matter. You don’t need a police officer on every single call.”
After being released from jail, Nonamaker said she found her way to a women’s shelter in Texas whose mission is to help incarcerated and homeless women get their children back. There, she started putting herself through rehab for her meth addiction.
Nonamaker said she stayed at the shelter until her trafficker discovered her location.
“The administrator said, ‘Because you’ve been found, not only is your life in danger, but other women. You got to go,’” she said.
Nonamaker relocated to Missouri, where she met a couple who allowed her to stay on their couch. She said they brought her to the library and helped her find services she needed.
The next day, Nonamaker was put in contact with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and another women’s shelter.
“I’ve been clean for about three years,” Nonamaker said. “I had one little ‘uh oh,’ but other than that, I’ve been doing it.”
She said the shelter has helped her regain her self confidence, build loving relationships, invest in her relationship with the Lord, and sort through trauma. She gets to see her son every month and talks to him daily.
“I do struggle with PTSD and anxiety a little bit,” Nonamaker said. “So, it can be hard.”
The best way to spread awareness about human trafficking is to discuss what manipulation and abuse looks like, Nonamaker said. She said this is important because vulnerable people need to be encouraged that they are in control of their own lives.
“I think what would have helped me then is knowing, at the end of the day, if you have the willpower to get through it, you can do it,” she said.
“You have to choose. I know it can be hard, but you have to choose for yourself that you don’t want this. You have to choose to go through the help that you need. Whether you have somebody with you or not, your life is your control.”
Nonamaker also said she wishes law enforcement would reconsider their approach to abuse allegations.
“Law enforcement should listen,” she said. “I do understand that you get a lot of reports that are false, but as well as that, a lot of people don’t take it seriously.”