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Conference raises human trafficking awareness

By RENEE WEBB, Globe senior reporter
(Email Renee)

Human trafficking is closer to home than one might think and efforts to stop the problem will take more than the work of law enforcement were just two of the messages from speakers at a June 17 conference focused on modern day slavery.

More than 275 people from the tri-state area attended the conference organized by the Diocesan Peace and Justice Commission in conjunction with the Diocese of Sioux City, Briar Cliff University and Mercy Advocacy Center.

Chair of the diocesan commission, Rosemary Paulsen, opened the conference with some stats on human trafficking.

“It is a $32 billion per year industry and it is tied with drugs for the most profitable criminal endeavor. Twenty-five million men, women and children are victims of this worldwide and each year only 40,000 victims are identified, according to the Des Moines Register,” said Paulsen, who also said it was linked with child pornography.

Bishop Walker Nickless, who attended the conference, offered prayer and brief comments to begin the conference.

“This is an important issue today as many of you know – that’s why you are here,” the bishop said. “These crimes attack fundamental human rights and our human dignity as made in the image of God. They prey upon the weak and the poor, which is corrosive to solidarity and the rule of law.”

Victims, perpetrators and consumers

Several presentations were offered during the day including two morning sessions by FBI Special Agent Anna Brewer, FBI Victim Specialist Kathryn Thomsen and Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Patrick O’Meara. Their presentations addressed people involved with human trafficking – victims, perpetrators and consumers.

“Human trafficking is real in Iowa,” said O’Meara, federal prosecutor. “The international statistics are overwhelming, the national statistics are overwhelming but there is nothing like dealing with a real victim. This is one of those categories where one is too many.”

Brewer, who established the FBI Innocence Lost Task Force in Omaha and serves on the national response team for abducted children, spoke about crimes against children such as abduction, pornography, sexual abuse and other internet crimes.

“When you put that together, what you end up with is sexual abuse and exploitation and I would also call that child prostitution or human trafficking,” she said.

O’Meara described the problem an “acute situation” and noted there must be fundamental change in a cultural sense. He mentioned that the Omaha task force has dealt with 50-plus documented victims “in a very limited geographic area” in the last few years.

He pointed out that the first human trafficking case the State of Iowa brought involved two Omaha runaways who were forced into work at a strip club in Denison. From there they were taken out of state.

“This is not necessarily a big city problem. Wherever there is a market there is the potential to have human trafficking,” said O’Meara, who cited other examples of small town trafficking cases.

He also spoke of a recent study that linked child pornography and various forms of prostitution and the underground sex trade. The prosecutor cited a case of a Council Bluffs pediatrician who was found with over 1.2 million images of child pornography and thousands of videos, among those were videos of 30 minors the doctor had videotaped while undergoing examination.

The speakers offered information about the culture and terminology used in human trafficking. They also presented four cases recently prosecuted in the Omaha metro area.

While human trafficking also encompasses forced labor, they noted the cases they have found tie directly with the sex trade.

Years ago, girls would work certain streets, but Brewer noted today it is anywhere. “It’s at truck stops, hotels, but most importantly, it is on the Internet,” she said.

They gave some tips on what to look for in identifying possible victims.

“These crimes are happening right in front of us, we just need to know what to look for,” Brewer said.

Thomsen said victims are forced into the sex industry in several ways. They do it because of: love, fear, motherhood, security, material well being or addiction.

Forced labor or sex trafficking, the speakers noted, can be distilled down to isolation, deprivation and manipulation accomplished by force, fraud or coercion.

Thomsen also addressed victim vulnerabilities such as being underage, financial deprivation, social deprivation, concern for safety of family, mental or emotional issues, drug addiction, language and cultural differences.

Community partners

She spoke of the importance of partnering with community NGOs – nongovernmental organizations – to provide support to the victims to provide some basic needs of clothing, shelter and educational opportunities.

“They don’t have insurance and they don’t have money,” Thomsen said. “It’s the community partners who help and we have had a tremendous outpouring from the faith-based community. They are helping with housing, rental deposits. There are a variety of ways they assist.”

How might you spot a victim of human trafficking: tattoos, clothing, associates, behavior and social media posts.

If you spot suspicious activity, they recommend you call 9-1-1 or call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center at 1 (888) 373-7888.

The speakers stressed the importance of involvement of citizens to enact change.

“The long-term is what has to be discussed and we have to make a difference in regard to that – whether it’s faith-based or just good intended people – we have to make the changes,” said O’Meara.

Sioux Falls response

Lt. David McIntire of the Sioux Falls Police Department, who was assigned to the street crimes unit in 2011, gave a presentation on what they are doing to reduce human trafficking and increase community awareness.

He said their approach to enforcement is being proactive on the internet, conducting stings and developing good relationships with the hotels.

“On our stings, we not only target the prostitutes but we are after the pimps. One of our officers refers to them as ‘soul stealers’ and that is probably the best description. They are rotten people, making money off of other people’s misery,” said McIntire, who added that arresting the prostitutes is sometimes the only way to help break the cycle.

He stressed the importance of the hotel program in their work. The officers build relationships with hotel employees and educate them about the signs of human trafficking. The hotel association gives the department a report of activities on a regular basis.

The local police department also collaborates with the FBI and Homeland Security.

As McIntire’s presentation concluded, it was announced that he, O’Meara and the FBI agents would meet with law enforcement in a separate breakout session.

Taking action

Bernadette Rixner presented the final session of the day to offer information on what groups and organizations are doing to combat human trafficking and provide tips on what individuals may do.

“Given the number of people here today and the quality of people here, I feel very comfortable in saying that there will be people who are going to be freed from slavery, human trafficking, and will be kept from falling into it because of our gathering here and what we will do afterwards,” she said. “That is good news and I thank you for it.”

In addition to providing some examples of groups that fight trafficking related to the sex trade – such as S.O.A.P. (Save Our Adolescents from Prostitution) and Truckers Against Trafficking (TAT), Rixner gave information about various faith groups that are working for the cause as well as organizations committed to fair trade practices.

She pointed out that one way of getting involved is praying just as a group in Omaha did as the College World Series got underway.

A signup sheet was also available at the conference for individuals to express interest in working at the local level to combat this problem.

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