Protections for human trafficking may not pass into Missouri law

State Rep. Ed Lewis urged a Missouri Senate committee to approve his child trafficking bill quickly Monday.

"Time is short," Lewis, R-Moberly, told the Missouri Senate Judiciary Committee.

If passed, House Bill 2032 would protect children 17 and younger who have been sexually trafficked from prosecution. Trafficked children would no longer be charged with prostitution but be treated as victims of exploitation.

Lewis said the legislation passed the House nearly unanimously.

"It's been vetted pretty well at this point, and I just hope that you can find a way to bring it through without too many complications," he said. "And we can help the children of this state not be exploited."

Lewis said the point of HB 2032 is to help sexually trafficked children who come in contact with law enforcement to connect with support services.

"DSS (the Department of Social Services) and Juvenile Services and law enforcement will work together to protect the exploited minor, keep them safe and get them the assistance they need to prevent future trafficking or further exploitation," Lewis said.

Jessica Petrie, a lobbyist for Missouri KidsFirst, testified in support of the bill. Missouri KidsFirst is a coalition of 15 child advocacy centers in the state that help children who have been victims of physical or sexual abuse.

Petrie said the coalition is particularly excited about a provision that would create a targeted task force to gather and analyze data and feedback on child trafficking statewide.

"We lack a lot of data, specifically on child exploitation," Petrie said. "When we talk about human trafficking more broadly, that could encompass labor, it can encompass adults, and the problems and solutions for that are very different."

The committee also fielded public comment on HB 2307, which would create a new fine of $5,000 for those convicted of any human trafficking offense.

That bill received widespread support in the House as well, said sponsor Rep. Jeff Coleman, R-Grain Valley.

Coleman said half of the revenue from the fines would go to local law enforcement, and the other half would go to local rehabilitation services for victims of human trafficking like Restoration House in Kansas City.

Coleman expressed uncertainty that either proposal would make it through the Senate and pass into law, though.

"It's going to depend upon the Senate and how big of a priority they feel this is," Coleman said in an interview. "If they think it's a priority, then I think yeah, both of them have a good path to get through. But we'll have to wait and see."

The committee did not vote to approve either bill.

The work of the Missouri News Network is written by Missouri School of Journalism students and editors for publication by Missouri Press Association member newspapers.

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