Human trafficking affects Iowans, Nebraskans

This Saturday is Global Human Trafficking Awareness Day and for many leaders, it's an everyday concern.
Published: Jul. 28, 2022 at 11:19 PM CDT
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - This Saturday is World Day Against Human Trafficking. The deplorable exploitation of fellow humans, human trafficking, has no place in a civilized world but can be found everywhere.

“The scale of this problem is vast,” U.S. Attorney General Antony Blinken said this week. “There are nearly 25 million people currently victims of trafficking. 25 million people.”

Those numbers are so staggering, it seems too big a problem for Nebraska or for Iowa. But Iowa’s Secretary of State Paul Pate wants folks in the Midwest to know the problem is real, and there are forces working to combat human trafficking here.

”What we’re talking about here is a crime against people who need a little extra help, who’ve fallen into the cracks,” Pate said. ”I like to talk about ‘Iowa Nice’, we think we have a great state, and as a former mayor of Cedar Rapids I want to tell you we always are very proud of our communities and we want to boast about them but until we take care of everybody, everybody should have that same feeling of safety, that they’ve got the kind of environment that they can feel comfortable in, and being in we will not have finished our job.”

“We’ve got people who are being trafficked,” he said. “It’s slavery, it’s what it is.”

Pate spoke along with leaders from Iowa’s Department of Public Safety and Department of Transportation to underscore the need for public awareness in the fight against human trafficking, in all of its manifestations. It starts with educating people on what human trafficking is.

“It isn’t like it’s portrayed in Hollywood,” Iowa Office to Combat Human Trafficking Special Agent in Charge Chris Callaway said. “What it is, is something that occurs every day to people from all walks of life, in all situations it can manifest itself in the sex trafficking industry, in the sex trades, or it can manifest itself in labor trafficking situations, so people that are disadvantaged or marginalized come into contact with these predators and they bring them in, they win them over through various means. It could be emotional, could be chemical or substance abuse and in that process that occurs the victimization begins.”

Public awareness, and communication with law enforcement, is critical to gaining continued ground on the issue.

“We passed a law (in Iowa) that requires lodging personnel to be trained on what to look for, (and) I think it’s working,” Pate said. “What happens now is the bad actors are moving into the rural areas, they’re not going to be in Council Bluffs or Omaha, they’re moving right out to the suburbs, looking farther out. We need people to pay attention to what’s going on around them.”

I asked Callaway what a family member might look for as a sign of trafficking.

“Your mom would see something that is obviously a crime occurring, she knows what to do, she’s going to call 911,” Callaway said. “But in a situation where... they go back during coffee and think, I saw something this morning that just didn’t seem right, we want them to take that next step and an email us the tip, or have that conversation with your police department or deputy sheriff in your town and say, this is what I saw.”

Iowa Department of Transportation Motor Vehicle Enforcement officers are in the midst of the efforts to identify illegal activity on highways, and according to Sgt. Joe Nickell, working with truckers has helped them make great strides in the fight against human trafficking.

“It’s got to be a team effort and that’s a reason we partner with the group called Truckers Against Trafficking, those commercial truck drivers that go to all 48 states to travel 600 plus miles a day,” Nickell said. “We try to train those drivers as they see something, they can recognize that there’s an issue and report it, the same as the Secretary’s (Iowa) Businesses Against Human Trafficking, the more people that understand what human trafficking actually is, the better chance that report will come through, same with convenience store employees, you go on to the bus industry, so many industries, once people truly realize what human trafficking is, they’re ready to recognize it and make that report which gives law enforcement the opportunity to hopefully stop that problem and get that victim some help.”

Overall, the number of human trafficking cases in Iowa and Nebraska are low compared to larger states. but the disturbing numbers according to website can be seen in the percentages per 100,000 people where Iowa ranks 18, Nebraska 15.

Now, Iowa, Nebraska and U.S. government have built significant resources to help educate individuals, business owners and law enforcement professionals how to better recognize human trafficking. But even the professionals who are training how to identify and help victims can run into heartbreaking challenges.

“I can tell you since I’ve been doing the training, I’ve ran into at least one (person) in a commercial vehicle who I was fairly certain was human trafficking,” Nickell said. “This young lady, she didn’t have anything else in her life and basically all she would tell me was she’s good, but she’s an adult, which tells me that where she was at right now is better than other alternatives, she had food, she had a place to sleep but she’s been victimized probably every night.”

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