ST. LOUIS, Mo. (KMOX) – Experts suspect that across the St. Louis region, countless children are being held against their will — forced into the sex trade.
This week KMOX News goes inside this hidden world and looks at why it’s so hard to expose sex traffickers.
“Tonight, some girl who’s going to be 17 or 18 years old, is gonna be looking in her closet trying to figure out, what can I put on to try to attract men because I have to make x amount of dollars.” – Pat Bradley, International Crisis Aid
She is not a streetwalker.
She is hidden in clubs. In hotels.
Exploited in ads on the web.
“There are numerous internet sites where a man, a john, can go and buy a girl at any time.” – Kimberly Ritter, Nix Conference and Meeting Management
Men who just want to satisfy their lust.
“Some of my clients were law enforcement, judges, athletes, politicians.” – Katie Rhoades, Healing Action Network
It’s said human trafficking is more profitable than drug trafficking.
“You can only sell the drugs one time. With the victim, you can sell that person over and over again.” – Cleo Terry, Hoyleton Youth and Family Services
In St. Louis, there are Children for Sale.
“These girls are victims, and I have yet to meet a girl that grew up saying I want to be a prostitute.” Pat Bradley is President of International Crisis Aid, a St. Louis-based group that is aided survivors in other countries.
Bradley says there is also a thriving underground trade in the St. Louis area. “What I’ve been told by federal law enforcement is that it’s in virtually every city in America.”
In fact, a Justice Department study put St. Louis in the top 20 regions for sex trafficking.
International Crisis Aid recently opened its first shelter for victims of sex trafficking in this region. The risk to these girls is so real, the location is kept secret.
Bradley gives a tour of one wing of the donated building. “In here we have 11 bedrooms set up. Each girl gets her own bedroom.” The home has space for nearly two dozen girls. He doubts that is even scratching the surface. “If you know where to go and you check it out online it’s just page, after page, after page of — let’s put it this way — potential victims.”
But until recently the term “sex trafficking” was something few people in the region had heard.
“It’s not like they’re walking up and down the streets of St. Louis County trying to pick up men, so a lot of people just don’t see what’s happening behind the scenes, so I don’t think they think it’s an issue,” says Sgt. Adam Kavanaugh with the Special Investigations Unit of the St. Louis County Police and Deputy Commander of the Missouri Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force.
The johns know where to go.
Kavanaugh says there is no doubt they know they’re buying underage girls. The average age of victims is 13 — and investigators have seen much younger — even toddlers. “It’s blatantly obvious what’s being advertised, especially when a lot of them have pictures of girls unclothed. And the way they’re worded, a lot of these people don’t try to hide it, they’re very obvious in what they’re doing.”
These children pay the price for men to have momentary pleasure.
“A lot of these girls by the time we see them have been brutally beat, raped, they’re held in conditions that are not the most liveable conditions,” explains Kavanaugh. “Some of them don’t eat but once a day. They’re held in hotel rooms and not allowed to leave unless they’re with their trafficker, so mentally they’re really beaten down.”
And when the cops get too close, these traffickers pick up stakes.
“One of the things that traffickers do is move victims from place to place, from city to city. Here of course it’s easy to go back and forth across the river.” As head of Hoyleton Youth and Family Services in East St. Louis, Illinois, Cleo Terry trains police and social workers in what to spot. Terry says moving just gives pimps another measure of control over their girls. “Before long the person doesn’t even know where she is,” explains Terry. “Her world comes down to this one manager who controls everything she does from the time she gets up to the time she goes to bed.”
Who are these girls and how are they trapped?
Listen Tuesday at 7:50 a.m. and 5:21 p.m. as our KMOX News Special Report “Children for Sale” continues.
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