Picture a 14-year-old you know. Maybe it’s your son or daughter, a niece or nephew, a neighbor or someone at your church. Do you see their face? Can you hear their laugh?

The average age of entry into prostitution is 13-14 years old.

“Most of them are not going out and doing this on their own,” said Lew Poe, with the Southwest Missouri Coalition Against Human Trafficking. “There’s going to be somebody that’s going to be controlling them.”

Jen Osgood, educational outreach instructor with Rapha House and Southwest Missouri Coalition, tells a story of a teenage girl who gets up and goes to school, then goes to her after-school job before heading home. At the end of a long day, she crawls into bed. Hours later, she awakes to her phone buzzing with a text. It’s her ex-boyfriend making her go see a “john.” She climbs out the window, does the unthinkable and climbs back in through her window — all while her parents sleep in the next room over.

“Then she tries to get up and have a normal day at school,” Osgood said. “Things like that are happening right under our noses all the time because we don’t see it for what it is and she doesn’t tell anyone.”

So, why does she do it? She’s not being held at gunpoint, she’s not living in a cage or chained up. She is free to see her parents, go to school and work her after-school job. However, she is a victim of human trafficking because her ex-boyfriend says if she doesn’t have sex with these men, he will blast the nude photo of her all over social media.

“And she thinks it’s all her fault. Why? Because she sent the photo. But, it’s not her fault,” Osgood said.

Osgood and Poe tell story after story during a four-hour training session with law enforcement officers Feb. 1 at OTC Richwood Valley. The Christian County Sheriff’s Office organized the training, which was attended by many area agencies, including the Missouri State Highway Patrol and the Battlefield and Marshfield police departments.

Osgood said the purpose of the training, offered free of charge, is to bring law enforcement onto the same page in terms of what human trafficking is, what the signs are and how to help.

“What we saw is that even if (law enforcement) could identify the victims, they didn’t know what to do with them,” Osgood said. “We want to open up a conversation about human trafficking and help our law enforcement feel equipped.”

Osgood said educating as many law enforcement officers as possible on human trafficking is important so they can “come together and have each other’s backs.”

“Runaway calls, domestic violence calls, prostitution calls, truancy calls — all of these can be human trafficking. All of those things we could overlook the exploitation or human trafficking if we don’t open our eyes to that,” she said.

Human trafficking isn’t limited to prostitution, and U.S. citizenship is not a factor. Victims of human trafficking aren’t only minors and they don’t all come from poverty.

Simply put, human trafficking is a loss of freedom; when another individual controls someone.

“It does not require any form of travel, over a border or within a city,” Osgood said. “You can be a U.S. citizen in your home, nobody ever enters your home, nobody ever touches you physically, and you could be a human trafficking victim.”

Human trafficking occurs when a person is induced by force, fraud or coercion to:

• Work under the total or near-total control of another person or organization;

• Forced to pay off a loan by working instead of paying money, for an agreed-upon or unclear period of time or even without an agreement as to the timeframe;

• Perform a sex act for money or anything of value;

• Child pornography is a form of sexual exploitation/trafficking.

Poe said human trafficking is very different than how it’s portrayed in the movies and media.

“What you see here is probably not what you’re going to see in the U.S.,” he said about the movie “Taken” starring Liam Neeson. “You’re thinking basement of 15-20 girls chained up or caged up and taking them across borders. That’s probably not what you’re going to see in the U.S.”

And that’s why Osgood said the training is so vital.

“Our goal is to, first of all, understand what human trafficking is. What you see in southwest Missouri is a lot different than what you see in the media,” she said.

By Amelia Wigton | Christian County Headliner