Kansas City, Mo., is known by many as “the heart of America,” but to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, it is known as one of the most overlooked yet pivotal battlefronts in the war against modern-day slavery.
The reason is evident from the vantage point of West Missouri U.S. district judge Beth Phillips’ downtown office.
Five stories up inside the U.S. federal courthouse, her office boasts an impressive view of the Missouri River as it converges with the Kansas River at Kaw Point. Four major thoroughfares intersect here, snaking along the water. In the distance, Phillips can see the Christopher S. Bond Bridge, where I-35 stretches across the river and heads toward Des Moines and eventually Minneapolis. Highways spread in every direction over the plains of the American Midwest, paving the way for a steady flow of goods and commerce.
But it’s the illegal trade that interests Phillips.
Standing at the crossroads of America, Kansas City serves as a case study for why trafficking is so difficult to fight—which is why the FBI has selected it for a unique pilot program that will encourage the ability of federal, state and local law enforcement to work together.
It wasn’t until the 2000 passing of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act that trafficking was made a federal crime and prosecutors like Phillips were given the legal tools to rescue victims and put traffickers behind bars.
Then in 2006, the Western District of Missouri launched the Human Trafficking Rescue Project (HTRP)—the pilot program coordinating federal and local police forces and nonprofits between police forces at both local and federal levels, as well as nonprofits that provide victim services.
And now this collaborative model is nationally expanding. Just this fall, President Barack Obama announced the first-ever federal action plan to monitor domestic trafficking and strengthen services for victims—a landmark move that will amplify national efforts to keep victims from slipping through the cracks.
And there are cracks.
“Criminals don’t care about jurisdiction,” Phillips says. While there are federal laws in place that clearly define trafficking, it falls upon the states to enforce the laws—and the space between the two is where justice often falters.