Child sex traffickers in Missouri face tougher penalties than in any other state except Texas, according to a state-by-state analysis released today.
Kansas, however, is one of 26 states that got a failing grade of “F” for having weak laws.
“If you buy a kid (for sex) in Missouri, you can go to jail for a long, long time,” said Linda Smith, president and founder of Shared Hope International, a Washington state-based nonprofit group that did the analysis. “Kansas doesn’t quite hang out a sign saying kids for sale, but it has some pretty strong weaknesses in comparison to Missouri,” she added.
Only four states received a “B:” Missouri , Illinois, Texas and Washington state. Fifteen got a “D.” No state rated an “A.”
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The report, released in San Antonio, Texas, at the annual conference of the National Association of Attorneys General, does not attempt to gauge how well states enforce their laws, only the adequacy of the laws on the books.
Kansas officials defended their record. The state has “significantly strengthened its anti-human-trafficking laws in recent years, and the attorney general is encouraged that we are beginning to see prosecutions under the new statutes,” according to a spokesman for Attorney General Derek Schmidt.
But he added, “With input from the Kansas Human Trafficking Advisory Board, the attorney general will make some additional anti-human-trafficking legislative recommendations in the coming year.”
Kristy Childs, a member of the Kansas advisory board and executive director of Veronica’s Voice, a nonprofit group that works to stop commercial sexual exploitation, said, “While it’s apparent work needs to be done in both Kansas and Missouri, I’m confident that both states will rise to this task.”
Childs, a former sex trafficking victim who ran away from home at 12, said vulnerability caused by abuse and trauma are major factors driving the sexual victimization of children. “A lot of them are ‘throwaway kids,’ ” she said.
Rates of exploitation
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimates that at least 100,000 American children each year are victims of commercial sex trafficking and prostitution, and several hundred thousand others are at risk, based on child homelessness and other factors. Reliable state-by state estimates may come with further study.
But some groups estimate as many as one-third of all street-level prostitutes in the United States are under 18, making them human-trafficking victims under federal law. The problem is exacerbated by what some researchers called an explosion in the sale of kids for sex online.
The Midwest in recent years has become a hub for human trafficking, which involves workplace or sexual exploitation of foreign nationals and U.S. citizens, usually children.
Shared Hope officials said they believe the United States has strong anti-trafficking laws, but most law enforcement occurs at the local level, making state laws a crucial element in protecting children.
The report analyzed laws in all 50 states and the District of Columbia that are designed to criminalize child sex trafficking. Shared Hope based its analysis on four policy issues it said must be addressed to combat the issue: eliminating demand; prosecuting traffickers; identifying victims; and providing victims with protection, access to services and shelter.
The organization gave Missouri 82 points, the second-highest score of all the states. Kansas got 50.5 points and was ranked ninth from the bottom.
Missouri got higher marks in part because it has a separate law addressing sex trafficking of a child and clearly defines a child under age 18 who is used in a commercial sex act as a human-trafficking victim — even if force, fraud or coercion are not motivating factors.
Penalties include up to life in prison and $250,000 in fines if the victim is under age 12 and was abducted, forced or coerced.
But gaps in Missouri law still exist, the report noted, including the fact that traffickers of older minors can claim they consented to sex acts.
Weaknesses in law
In Kansas, Shared Hope found that “domestic minor sex trafficking victims are vulnerable due to gaps in state laws.” While some human-trafficking laws are strong, such as those requiring convicted traffickers to forfeit their assets, there are significant weaknesses.
“Unless identified and prosecuted as child sex trafficking specifically, commercial sex with minors is not a crime in Kansas,” the report noted.
The analysis also found that a minor “may” be prosecuted for prostitution in Kansas and not identified as a sex trafficking victim. In addition, protections for such victims are not specifically mandated in state law.
The organization also was critical of Kansas laws that may require child sex-trafficking victims to report the crime within 72 hours for officials to take action.
Shared Hope, which is funded by federal grants, conducted its report with the American Center for Law and Justice.
This is the second time this year that Missouri has outranked Kansas in state-by-state comparisons done by anti-human trafficking groups. An analysis in September by the Washington, D.C.-based Polaris Project gave Kansas a poor ranking for lacking “a full arsenal of laws considered critical to a comprehensive anti-trafficking effort.”