After an area woman compiled a Facebook thread of posts about women being followed and alleged human trafficking arrests in the greater Kansas City area – with an emphasis on Independence, Blue Springs and Lee’s Summit – it rapidly amassed 6,000 shares and hundreds of comments.
Tiffani Link, a mother of two, said she became inspired to screenshot the posts so her parents could be aware of potential risks, especially when out in public with her children. For her, the personal stories resonated and reminded her of past situations when she felt in danger.
“I was followed two times by the exact same person while I was in high school,” Link said, citing an Independence Walmart and a Lee’s Summit Walmart as the locations. Once, she says, she was also followed out of the Walmart parking lot and to a nearby church.
“It’s scary seeing stuff like this, because it is a reminder of how real the problem is,” she continued. “I think a lot of people think it would never happen to them, and we don’t pay enough attention to our surroundings.”
However, both the Independence and Blue Springs police departments describe social media posts as a counterproductive way of raising awareness, as they can spread misinformation and spur alarm.
According to Independence police public information officer John Syme, no trafficking situations detailed on social media have been found to be true.
“We’re fighting people sharing incorrect information on Facebook,” Syme said. “We’re rarely able to track down where this information comes from.”
Blue Springs public information officer and crime analyst Jennifer Dachenhausen agreed that fast-generating social media posts about believed human trafficking have led to a problem. She says she frequently receives worried calls from citizens who have read these posts.
According to her, there have been no confirmed accounts of human trafficking in Blue Springs in the past year
“When people post things on social media, chances are that what is being put out there is a person’s opinion of what they believed happened,” Dachenhausen said. “It’s not always the case. It does eat up our resources for us to have to do the research.”
Link says she trusts friends’ personal stories more than official investigations and statistics. She says she has never called police to ask for further details behind stories shared online.
“If you go to the police with a story like this, that was just a report of being followed, it’s not going to go public. If you take it to Facebook to warn friends, you actually have a chance of warning people and getting the word out,” Link said.
“There are people like me, who never thought to even report situations to police. I think the statistics and reports of this kind of thing aren’t an accurate representation of how common this really is.”
Human trafficking is underreported, according to Christine McDonald, the director of adult services at Restoration House of Greater Kansas City, an organization that strives to empower sex trafficking survivors. She said most survivors she works with have not reported their experiences to law enforcement. McDonald attributes that to a stigma towards victims, fear of retaliation, discrepancies in prosecution and the challenge of identifying traffickers.
“Anybody can look like a trafficker, which can make it kind of tricky,” McDonald explained. “There’s not a cookie-cutter definition.”
The National Human Trafficking Hotline tallied 140 human trafficking cases reported this year in the state of Missouri.