story by Scarlet Sims, special to The City Wire
Editor’s note: During 2012, The City Wire will publish a series of stories focusing on people and organizations working in our communities to raise awareness of child abuse and reduce abuse figures. See the Related Content box at the end of the story for other reports in the series.
Kirk Rhoads firmly believes Arkansans must fix weak laws against child sex trafficking. So, the Mountain Home activist began an online petition that garnered about 100 signatures in about a week.
Many of those signers are from Northwest Arkansas.
“Something needs to be done,” said Alice Green of Rogers who signed Rhoads petition. “I’ve got grandkids.”
Rhoads began his petition on his own “to show there’s a grassroots effort. People in Arkansas are interested in this.”
A growing awareness is spreading across Northwest Arkansas and the Fort Smith area that child sex trafficking is a problem. Children nationwide are caught up commercial sex acts, like stripping and porn. The average age of girls in human trafficking is about 13 or 14.
According to nonprofits tracking Arkansas laws and human trafficking, the state is among the worst nationwide for laws that protect children. The state received an “F” grade from Shared Hope. Tougher laws would allow prosecutors to put offenders away for long sentences and prevent victims from being charged with crimes.
Arkansans don’t want to be among nine states lagging behind in laws that are needed to combat child trafficking, said Reps. Greg Leding, D-Fayetteville, and David Meeks, R-Conway.
“It’s a problem we don’t think about happening here at home — but it does,” Leding said.
Leding and Meeks are among legislators leading efforts to beef up state laws against child sex trafficking. Lawmakers are paying attention to a public outcry, they said.
In the upcoming weeks, Leding plans to reach out to the Northwest Arkansas Community College, which is in the process of raising money to build a state-of-the-art training center to combat child abuse. The center might be instrumental in training law enforcement to identify child sex trafficking, Leding said.
“We need better law enforcement training,” Leding said. “It’s not exactly something police are trained to do.”
Arkansas’ laws also limit what investigators can do, said Taryn Mastrean, spokeswoman for Shared Hope International, a nonprofit organization against child trafficking. Arkansas laws don’t allow wire tapping that might lead to arrests, she said.
Shared Hope doesn’t just criticize Arkansas’ legal system as it relates to protecting children. The group offers a list of recommendations to stiffen the laws — to include asset seizure and expanding crimes under which violators must register as a sex offender.
And Arkansans must be more aware of the problem, Mastrean said.
“It’s an awareness issue. Places don’t think they have trafficking, but actually they do,” she said. “(Victims) don’t just say ‘I am a trafficking victim.”
Meeks said Arkansas doesn’t have a good way of tracking child sex trafficking cases. In 2010, there were 126 arrests for solicitation of and indecency with a child, according to the state Criminal Information Center.
“There is a problem, but we don’t know how big because we don’t have a way to track the problem,” Meeks said.
The Arkansas Division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation cannot comment on the number of human trafficking cases in the state, said Steve Frazier, special agent with the FBI in Little Rock.
“We believe it’s a largely under-reported crime even in the state of Arkansas,” Frazier said.
Meeks said that, besides Rhoads’ online petition, a January event to spotlight child sex trafficking drew a large amount of public support. Rhoads said the “barbaric, cruel nature of” human trafficking makes the issue standout among others.
“If (people) want to alleviate human suffering — this is the best way to get involved. There is an intense human suffering in this,” Rhoads said. “It’s really touched my heart.”