Missouri Family E-News

July 18, 2017

      
U.S Congress
OKs Measure to Battle Sex Trafficking 

The U.S. House of Representatives has approved a bill sponsored by Missouri Congresswoman Vicky Hartzler which takes aim at the demand side of the human trafficking business.

The legislation approved by the U. S. House last week is called the Empowering Law Enforcement to Fight Sex Trafficking Demand Act.

The proposal would expand the authority of the Department of Justice to award grants to local law enforcement agencies to prosecute the customers of sex trafficking victims.

"Women and children around the nation, and even in Missouri, are being victimized every day by a sex trafficking industry that takes their life, hope, and dignity just to make a profit," Hartzler said.

"My bill addresses the epidemic of sex trafficking by giving police officers the resources they need to go after the criminals behind these terrible crimes," Hartzler added.

Hartzler pointed to a case earlier this year of a woman who was taken to a Springfield area home where she was raped.  Prior to her escape, the woman witnessed two minor girls being held hostage in the home who were chained to the wall. 

The federal grants would pay for "demand reduction programs" in which police officers pose as prostitutes on the street to identify individuals who are customers of the sex trade.

Police officers may also post decoy advertisements online to set up reverse stings at a hotel or an apartment.  The average sex trafficking unit consists of about six officers for each decoy.

Patrick Trueman, President of the National Center for Sexual Exploitation, says the legislative strategy being pursued by Representative Hartzler is the right one.

"Sex trafficking occurs every day in rich and poor neighborhoods, online and offline.  Unfortunately, our culture of rampant sexual objectification and consumption provokes the very behaviors that fuel the commercial sex trade."

"Too often our society normalizes and glorifies the men who buy sex," Trueman states.  "In contrast, it is vital to encourage programs that directly confront the demand side of sex trafficking if we are to ever achieve meaningful progress in fighting a world of sexploitation."

Missouri Congressman William "Lacy" Clay is a co-sponsor of the bill.  Clay called human trafficking "a form of 21st century slavery."

Congressman Clay points out correctly that St. Louis is one of the top 20 markets in the country for sex trafficking because of its central location at the intersection of major national transportation routes.

"Most of the victims are minor children, and some of them have been kidnapped, beaten, and deceived by organized criminal enterprises who are exploiting their bodies for profit."

"This sick and inhuman practice could not continue without steady demand, and reducing that market is exactly the purpose of this important bill," Clay observed.

The legislation now moves on to the U.S. Senate for further action there.              
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Attorney General
Initiates Probe of
Backpage Website

Missouri Attorney General Joshua Hawley is pressing forward with an investigation into the notorious website Backpage.com despite a lawsuit filed by the company against him alleging harassment.  Hawley issued a lengthy demand for company documents in May to determine whether Backpage.com is in violation of Missouri laws regulating human trafficking.

Backpage.com is a sleazy website whose primary feature is a classified advertising forum where individuals offer and solicit casual sexual encounters.  The company has been widely accused of knowingly posting classified ads in which the "sexual services" of minors are being advertised who are victims of the sex trafficking industry.

Attorney General Hawley's letter to Backpage.com officers states that the investigation is being undertaken to determine whether the company is engaged in activity which is prohibited by Missouri's Deceptive Merchandising Practices Act.  The Attorney General's office is demanding an extensive list of documents regarding the "sale or advertisement...of commercial sexual conduct...massage services, dating services...and other sexually oriented services."

Last week Backpage.com filed suit in federal court seeking to block Hawley's formal demands, saying they constituted "unreasonable search and seizure in violation of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments."  Attorneys for Backpage contend that the federal Communications Decency Act provides immunity from liability to internet websites for content created and posted by third parties.

Hawley says the litigation filed by Backpage against his office is no surprise.  "They've stonewalled me for weeks and weeks now, and now they're trying to sue me to stop it.  My message to Backpage is there is no First Amendment right to engage in human trafficking.  And this frivolous lawsuit will not deter me from pursuing the eradication of this terrible crime in Missouri."

In the meantime, a highly damaging report has been released which belies the claims of Backpage officials that they are merely an online marketplace for personal ads posted by private parties, and that they exercise no editorial influence over the content posted by those private parties.

The Washington Post has discovered documents showing that Backpage contracted with a company from the Phillipines to create and promote material advertising commercial sexual conduct on behalf of Backpage overseas.  The documents reveal that a company named Avion was hired to lure advertisers and customers seeking sexual encounters from websites run by other online competitors.

The insidious tragedies and human wreckage from Backpage.com's online brothel continue to mount.  On Christmas eve of last year, 16-year-old Desiree Robinson was found dead in a Chicago garage.  She was lying in a pool of blood after her throat had been slit after being beaten and strangled.  She had been advertised as a female "companion" on Backpage.com, and a 33-year-old Chicago man has now been charged as her pimp.      
Just the month before, a 20-year-old woman named Ashley Mays was found strangled to death inside a suburban Atlanta hotel room.  May was nine-months pregnant, and had been strung up with zip ties binding her hands and feet.  She, too, had been advertised as an "escort" on the Backpage.com site.

The National Association of Attorney Generals has described Backpage as a "hub of human trafficking."  The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reports that nearly 75 percent of the approximately 10,000 child sex trafficking reports it receives each year involve minors whose availability for sexual conduct has been advertised on Backpage.com.

Under pressure from federal congressional committees investigating human trafficking, Backpage discontinued its "adult services" section early this year.  However, those sexually oriented ads have simply been moved to other personal classified sections advertising "dating," "massages," and "escorts."

Curiously, Attorney General Hawley is not using an anti-sex trafficking law recently adopted by the Missouri General Assembly as the primary basis for his investigation.  Last year the Missouri Legislature approved an amendment to the state's human trafficking statutes criminalizing the marketing of women and children for sexual conduct. 

That new law created the crime of "advertising the availability" of an individual for sexual activity who is underage or is acting under coercion or bondage.  Instead, Hawley is using the state's consumer protection statutes banning merchandising practices that are deceptive in nature.

The U.S. Congress has also enacted legislation making it a federal crime to advertise online the "sexual services" of children and women who are enslaved in the sex trafficking trade.  The new law was sponsored by Missouri Congresswoman Ann Wagner, who has made the battle against human trafficking a centerpiece of her career in Congress.

Missouri U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill has also been a fierce opponent of the sex trafficking industry.  McCaskill has been a key figure in congressional investigations probing the sleazy operations of Backpage.com.  The owners of Backpage refused to respond to questions from McCaskill and other senators, invoking their Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate themselves.

Backpage founders Michael Lacey and James Larkin, and chief executive Carl Ferrer are currently facing criminal charges in California for pimping and money laundering.  Numerous civil suits have also been filed against the company in courts across the country, including one involving a 15-year-old girl in Washington state who had been trafficked on Backpage.com for three months.

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