Last December, I interviewed five children in the Takeo province of Cambodia and talked with several of more than 40 others at A Greater Hope Orphanage. Each had a story about escaping poverty, neglect or abuse.
The International Labour Organization estimates 28,000 children in this small southeast Asian country are forced to beg, dig through trash or work as servants — almost double the number of current students in Columbia's public schools.
Without the option of the orphanage, several could have ended up in sex or labor trafficking situations. Traffickers often approach parents and promise to give their children jobs in the city, a blatant lie. In some cases, impoverished families will sell a child to traffickers, knowing full well what will happen.
In the last decade, these revelations about human trafficking have pushed the topic to the forefront. Horrific stories of sexual and physical slavery have inspired thousands to action, including groups on the MU campus and elsewhere in Columbia.
The Western District of Missouri U.S. Attorney’s office, which includes Kansas City and Boone County, claims it has handled 45 human trafficking prosecutions since 2006 — more than any other U.S. district. This includes urban destinations such as New York, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles.
With a bold claim like that, the district stands to gain leverage in requesting federal money. But, so far, they have been unable to answer requests from the Missourian for comparative numbers from other districts to back up the claim.
Evidence of the number of prosecutions related to human trafficking in each judicial district has been impossible to acquire. Those numbers are kept with the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington and are not available to the public.
If the claim is true, the district should be commended. But handling the most prosecutions does not necessarily mean the district has the biggest human trafficking problem. It could mean it has the most success in bringing traffickers to court — granted, a key deterrent that helps curb human trafficking.
But the public has no way of knowing without access to all the numbers.
On a national level, some data can be found. In 2010, the U.S. Department of Justice districts prosecuted 131 human trafficking cases, for example.
But in Boone County, the scope of human trafficking remains unclear. Part of this is because of a national tendency of poor data collection on human trafficking cases. The U.S. State Department is asking local, state and federal agencies to do a better of job of reporting that data in the Trafficking in Persons 2011 report (scroll down to United States.)
It's also because local advocates and law enforcement are reluctant to disclose the numbers they have collected in Boone County. Donations are solicited and events are held to help local survivors, but official numbers on how many survivors live in Boone County are restricted.
In Columbia, the Central Missouri Stop Human Trafficking Coalition raises money to assist human trafficking survivors with living expenses and hosts training sessions for law enforcement, social services and the public.
Yet Deb Hume, the co-chair of the coalition, would not reveal how many survivors had been served since the coalition began in 2008. She said the U.S. Attorney's Office told her not to provide exact numbers because it could compromise the survivors' identity.
One board member, however, has hinted that three survivors have been served by the coalition in the past year.
Almost all of the coalition's budget is from small donations. A two-year $100,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in 2009 is the only federal or state funding the coalition has secured. The grant paid the Columbia Police Department for training and overtime to proactively unearth human trafficking cases.
A handful of officers netted two cases for prosecution, and now, no one in the department is dedicated to human trafficking cases.
As the community learns more about how to recognize human trafficking, the costly emotional and physical consequences for victims and ways to contribute to the solution, we should also know the extent of the problem — however large or small.
Laura Kebede, who graduated from the Missouri School of Journalism this spring, spent three weeks in Cambodia in partnership with A Greater Hope Orphanage. She was a public safety reporter at the Missourian this spring.