Sitting behind the wheel of a Ford Explorer on a warm February day, Mark Elam takes his winter coat off before pulling his SUV out of a truck stop parking lot along Interstate 35.
"Our highways are our actual trade routes, the pipelines of criminal activity," Elam says. "We're traveling them with our families, but these criminals are using them as well. And they move these individuals around to the profitable cities."
The criminals Elam is referring to are human traffickers. And those getting moved around from city to city are their sex slaves. They are typically girls ranging in age from 6 to 17 years old.
Elam is the coalition director for Oklahomans Against Human Trafficking. This is a group working closely with federal and state law enforcement agencies to expose child sex traffickers who are using major U.S. highways as pipelines to supply pimps with underage girls.
"The average age for a prostitute is 14 now," says Elam as he adjusts his rearview mirror and turns onto the interstate headed toward Kansas City. "And there's been this huge shift over the last 20 to 30 years, in that men paying for sex are moving to sex with teens, and actually they're children."
According to Elam, a growing number of those girls are being forced to prostitution at truck stops and roadside lodging establishments. Many of those places sit within plain sight of the same interstates used to traffic child sex slaves.
"Pimps will drop a girl off at a truck stop," said Elam. "Then tell her to go make money, putting her through 15 to 20 customers a night to make her quota."
Passing traffic and truckers on the three-lane interstate, Elam points out that the majority of the traveling public is unaware of what is happening with the sex trade in America.
"You probably see a modern day slave, a human trafficking victim every week in your day-to-day activities, sometimes more often," he said.
Shared Hope International, an international organization working to end human trafficking and sex slavery, estimates as many 300,000 children born in the United States have been sold into sex slavery since 2001. To highlight the growing problem of child sex trafficking in this country, the organization recently graded the trafficking laws of every state and issued a report card. No state received an "A" grade, and in fact 24 states including Kansas failed. Missouri on the other hand, along with three other states, scored a "B."
But Elam says child sex trafficking is a problem in Missouri.
Missouri's two largest cities rank near the top when it comes to a crime Elam calls one part slavery and one part rape.
"Kansas City is No. 4, tied with L.A. (Los Angeles); St. Louis is No. 5 tied with New York," Elam noted. "And when you think about this Midwest region, it's a profitable region because of those highways moving through here."
Easy access to the interstate system is only one part of the problem, according to Lt. Kelli Bailiff with the Wyandotte County Sheriff's Department. She said another issue is the negative perception about child sex trafficking victims.
"People need to understand that just because they see a kid on the street doesn't mean that child wants to be there. They could have been thrown from their home, or left it to escape physical or sexual abuse," Bailiff said. "Any number of situations and they're just trying to survive, and unfortunately sex traffickers prey on those types of young kids."
In addition to serving as a spokeswoman for the sheriff's office, Bailiff founded KC Child Service. The nonprofit was founded in 1993 in an effort to find missing and abducted children.
"Horrible things can happen to a child if the wrong person gets a hold of them," she said.
Bailiff fears the public often walks away from troubled children who need help, especially teen prostitutes, because the media and sometimes police tag them as runaways, without ever asking how or why they ended up on the street.
"I'd like people to have more of an open mind and not all of a sudden put a stigma, put a label on the young kids, and maybe offer them some help," she said. "They're actually a victim and there needs to be a better screening of kids."
The Wyandotte County Sheriff's Office is working to identify victims of child sex trafficking and not simply label them as runaways or sex offenders. This includes having teens picked up for prostitution undergo screening at a juvenile assessment center inside department headquarters.
"Legally they can be an offender," said Bailiff. "The acts they are committing fit the acts of being an offender. But that's where the training comes in, as to looking and asking the proper questions. Like, how did you get to where you are? And many times you'll find that they're really a victim, who needs to be treated as a victim and not prosecuted for what they are being forced to do."
According to Shared Hope International, the main reason Kansas received an "F" on its sex trafficking report card was because the state doesn't give minors immunity from prosecution for prostitution. And once a young sex-trafficking victim is arrested and treated as an offender, Bailiff says they are more likely to go back to their pimp than turn to police, social workers or counselors for help.
Elam agrees, saying so many of the young girls now trapped in sex slavery were once vulnerable kids looking for love, attention and understanding they never got at home.
To make matters worse, Elam tells how pimps and sex traffickers are now trying to recruit younger, more impressionable girls.
"If you're going to control women and make them lay under fat old greasy guys, you're not going to go after college-age or adult women that are independent and strong thinkers and understand their values," Elam said. "You're going to be going after young, naïve girls that may be coming out of broken homes. So that 12-, 13-, 14-, 15-year age is a prime age to target."
Few, if any of the girls, according to Elam, realize initially they are falling victim to sex trafficking. Instead, many pimps or traffickers prey on a child's desire to be thought of as beautiful and special.
"Pimps always have a side business," Elam said. "It's a phony business, but it will either be modeling or it will be in the music industry. And so they'll go after the dream of this young person, telling her you know, ‘I have an in to help you realize your dream.'"
While the FBI warns parents about the threat of sexual predators online, Elam is sounding a different alarm.
He says a new breed of pimps and sex traffickers are preying on children in environments parents once thought safe.
"Movie theaters, when we drop our kids off there to go to a movie, those are excellent places. And they're recruiting at malls, even schools. Particularly lunch hours or after hours," warned Elam. "When you think as a predator you think: ‘Where am I going to go where there are young people and their parents aren't supervising.'"
Once a child is recruited and taken into sex slavery, Elam claims they can disappear forever overnight, because traffickers use the interstate, especially the I-35 corridor between San Antonio and Kansas City, to move victims to a new city, where they are often bought and sold multiple times.
"They will move them probably every month to three or four months," Elam said, calling it an elaborate network set up to supply pimps with young sex slaves. "Here in the Midwest you have this movement of Kansas City, St. Louis, Oklahoma City, Dallas and over to Denver."
Both Elam and Bailiff fear local police aren't equipped to combat the growing interstate network of sex slaves because of budget shortfalls and cutbacks. "Trying to figure out what's going on costs thousands of dollars," said Elam. "And most local law enforcement agencies just don't have those resources to put into this type of crime."
Bailiff says child trafficking must be a priority.
"I know money is tight," said Bailiff. "But I think we need to start prioritizing money and building more programs."
Turning off Interstate 35 one last time and circling back towards another truck stop, Elam offers up a piece of advice he gives any concerned enough to listen. "When you see young girls at a truck stop or rest areas or out hitchhiking, call the authorities, call us, call the national trafficking hotline (1-888-3737-888) so that we can get someone over there to find out what's really happening."
The hotline's telephone number is 1-888-373-7888. Click here for more details.
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