By Missourinet contributor Jill Enders

Missouri is taking a new approach to combating human trafficking. Attorney General Josh Hawley has announced new initiatives at St. Louis area safe house for human trafficking victims.

Missouri attorney general launches initiatives aimed at fighting human trafficking

“Human trafficking is the third largest criminal industry in the world, and the fastest growing. It is happening right here, in our own neighborhoods, every day. I became a lawyer because I believe in justice, and justice means protecting the vulnerable and the exploited. I am proud to announce these efforts to make Missouri a leader in the fight to abolish trafficking. To the criminals who would exploit the weak, the vulnerable and the oppressed, I say this: Missouri is officially closed for your kind of business.” Hawley says.

These initiatives are the first of their kind in the nation and involve using the states consumer protection laws to target human traffickers. Hawley says many human traffickers use a business, such as a nail salon or a bar as a front for human trafficking.

“If traffickers attempt to use a business to mask their criminal enterprise, we will shut them down and we will hold them personally liable with civil and criminal penalties.” explains Hawley.

These new regulations will also make debt bondage illegal under the state’s consumer protection laws.

“This takes direct aim at another favorite tactic of traffickers. They lend money or give something of value to their victims, but use that debt to coerce their victims into commercial sex or forced labor,” says Hawley.

These new regulations will be enforced with a new Anti-Trafficking Unit in the Attorney General’s Office. Hawley also announced the creation of a permanent, statewide Human Trafficking Task Force, the only one of its kind in Missouri, to include law enforcement officials, local prosecutors, social-service providers, victims’ advocates, and individual human-trafficking survivors. The Task Force will coordinate law enforcement efforts and services for victims.

Katie Rhoades, a human trafficking victim turned activist with Healing Action, a nonprofit based in St. Louis focusing on ending sexual exploitation, also spoke at the press conference.

“For those who may not believe human trafficking is a real problem in Missouri, I ask you to look no further than my own story,” says Rhoades.

“We need more people with Attorney General Hawley’s passion and commitment to truly bring an end to human trafficking once and for all. “Rhodes adds.

Since 2007, the National Trafficking Hotline has reported over 31,000 confirmed cases of sex trafficking in the United States, with just over 2000 cases reported in Missouri.