Human trafficking is present in southwest Iowa, and teens are at risk, according to local experts.
The problem is growing – both nationally and locally, said Carrie Potter, sexual assault coordinator at Catholic Charities Phoenix House.
“The number of human trafficking victims we work with has increased drastically – I would say just even in the last year,” she said. “We’ve had 10 or more over the last year.”
A report from the Iowa Department of Human Services, released in January 2016, stated that there were 24 potential cases in Iowa in 2014 – the most recent year for which data was available when the report was compiled.
Determining the size of the problem is difficult, the report’s authors said, because trafficking operations are so secret and victims are often afraid to report them. Sometimes, offenders are charged with kidnapping or pimping instead of under Iowa’s human trafficking law. In addition, some cases are handled by federal officials, and information on those is not part of state records.
Teenagers are the biggest target, Potter said.
“It’s really important to educate our youth that it’s happening and it’s happening here,” she said.
While most traffickers are adults, they sometimes use teenagers as recruiters to lure other teens into the business, Potter said. Whoever is looking for a victim will target someone who is vulnerable. She suggested students who are experiencing trouble at home, work or school talk to a school counselor about what’s going on in their lives.
When searching for a victim, the recruiter may go to an athletic event or other school activity and look for someone who is lonely and by herself instead of with a group of friends, said Officer Greg Jace, Southwest Iowa Narcotics Task Force. The suspect may try to “buddy up” with her.
“They build them up, shower them with compliments, tell them how pretty they are,” he said.
Once he has gotten on her good side, the recruiter may ask if she wants to party. If she is frustrated and desperate for attention, she may go.
It may be a party that goes all night or all weekend and involves alcohol, maybe drugs. After the party, the trafficker may say “That alcohol wasn’t free” and threaten to turn her in for underage drinking if she doesn’t work for him to repay her “debt,” Jace said.
Often, a trafficker or recruiter will “groom” someone to become a victim through social media and email, Potter said. It’s important that youth never give their full identity, home address or school online so a trafficker or predator doesn’t have a trail to follow.
The person may post or send messages trying to sound empathetic in order to gain the victim’s trust, Potter said. The trafficker or recruiter may try to convince the target person that he is the only person who really cares about her. He may offer to help her by giving her a job.
A classic line, Potter said – and not just in the movies – is, “You look very beautiful. Have you thought about modeling?”
The person being groomed as a victim may be someone who has been in trouble with the law and feels like she has no other options, Potter said. In some cases, the target may be someone in this country illegally, and the trafficker may threaten to have her deported.
Emilee Birchard, prevention specialist at Catholic Charities Phoenix House, urged youth to be cautious about online activities. She warned teens to put their settings on “private” to keep information from the general public, for example.
“Even if you want to, if your settings are not private, it’s not safe to complain about your life or how your parents haven’t supported you online,” she said.
A trafficker might key in on that as a sign of vulnerability.
In addition, Facebook users should limit their circle of friends to people who are friends in real life and not just in cyberspace, Birchard said.
“One of the biggest lessons on the internet is let’s not make it a goal to have as many friends as possible on Facebook, Snapchat, etc.,” she said. “If you don’t know them or haven’t had a face-to-face conversation with them, don’t add them to your friend list.”
Finally, some content should never be placed online.
“Be smart about what you put online and what you share,” Birchard said. “Never, ever, ever do nude photos of yourself. They’re always going to come back and hurt you. And it never goes away.”
Even if an image is deleted from a Facebook page or tweet, there will always be a copy of it on a server somewhere in cyberspace. Someone could find it and share or publish it, potentially ending the person’s career or marriage.
As prevention specialist, Birchard teaches a “Building Healthy Relationships” curriculum in many area middle and high schools. At most schools, she presents the lessons weekly in health or family and consumer science classes for eight to 10 weeks.
Catholic Charities will soon be implementing the “Any Kid, Anywhere” curriculum from Braking Traffik at some high schools, Potter said. Braking Traffik warns that many residents of small communities believe human trafficking only happens in big cities, but “no community is immune to this horrific crime,” Executive Director Cathy O’Keeffe said in a letter sent with the curriculum.
“All children have the right to live safe, productive lives, protected from this insidious crime,” the letter stated. “It is Braking Traffik’s hope that ‘Any Kid, Anywhere’ will help to prevent students from falling victim and to encourage them to have respect for themselves and others, leading to a society where all people are free.”