Human trafficking advocates work to protect children, other victims
By Christine Scalora, NewsNetNebraska
She had four children by the time she was 19. The first child was fathered by her uncle. She was sexually abused by two uncles and her dad.
Now she’s in prison for trafficking drugs.
“This girl had no chance,” said Chris Webster, Lincoln Public Schools homeless outreach specialist.
Human trafficking happens in Nebraska and there is much more work to be done on the issue, several advocates said at the Nebraska Human Trafficking Summit at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. To address human trafficking and prostitution will require a holistic approach by law enforcement, legislators, and those who provide services to domestic violence victims and at-risk youth, the advocates said.
Nebraska University Students Against Modern-Day Slavery and nonprofit The Bay organized the summit, which was held April 22. The summit brought together those working in law enforcement, academia and advocacy organizations.
Human trafficking is commercial sex acts or labor or services that are induced through force, fraud, or coercion, according to the Polaris Project – an anti-human trafficking and modern-day slavery organization.
Human trafficking can be used to refer to a variety of issues: sex, labor, even organ trafficking.
To Nikki Siegel, director of outreach services for The Bay, it’s “anytime that my girls are forced to do any sexual exploitation against their will for basic needs.”
-State Sen. Amanda McGill, Chris Webster and Kathryn Bolkovac define human trafficking.
To change the balance in the fight of human trafficking, people need to change how they look at prostitutes, the advocates said.
“Folks who are doing acts of prostitution are not criminals,” Webster said. “They are victims. Period.”
“I don’t think any prostitute out there is doing this willingly,” said Kevin Hytrek, the supervisor for the Omaha field office of the FBI that covers child exploitation.
There are no clear numbers on how frequently human trafficking happens in the United States, much less in Nebraska.
Since the FBI started its Innocence Lost National Initiative in 2003, the agency has recovered more than 2,100 children as of 2012 – the size of three Lincoln K-5 elementary schools combined.
Human trafficking is an under-reported crime. For law enforcement, human trafficking is an investigation where they have to actively seek the victims, Hytrek said.
More context to how far the problem extends is hard to find. Official statistics are few, and advocacy group numbers are often disputed or contradictory.
Lincoln Police Department Capt. Joy Citta has been a police officer for 37 years. At the beginning of her career, domestic violence was considered a family matter. Women usually didn’t want to press charges, Citta said.
Now police don’t need the victim’s permission to act and there are more resources for women and children. Citta used to ask if women could stay in churches.
“Today we have advocates,” Citta said. “We have support systems. We have shelters. We have laws. We have law enforcement that can take action without the victim.”
The FBI’s field office in Omaha covers both Nebraska and Iowa. There is one agent working on child prostitution and one on child pornography, Hytrek said.
Child exploitation is just a small part of what the FBI does, he said.
“We take it very seriously and we’re doing the best with what we have,” Hytrek said.
Since the 1990s, the FBI has been aided by the use of victim witness advocates.
“Our victim witness advocates are invaluable and the reason is that every one of these investigations we need the victims to testify against the perpetrators,” Hytrek said.
But the relationship between victims and law enforcement is still strained.
“The girls are told that law enforcement is not their friend, they can’t help you and all they’re going to do is put you in jail,” Hytrek said.
From Webster’s work as a homeless advocate, the typical person who is trafficked is homeless, poor, or a runaway. Webster said. Webster is also a member of the Lincoln Homeless Coalition.
“Within 48 to 72 hours they’re either likely to end up getting sexually assaulted or assaulted or end up doing some sort of sex act for money,” Webster said.
Many have been sexually abused.
A couple years ago, Public Safety Director Tom Casady looked at 10 prostitutes and their backgrounds. Combined they had 105 runaway calls, 44 child abuse reports and 35 sexual assaults – all before age 19.
“That’s huge,” Citta said. “These young women were being abused at a pretty high rate.”
The girls who are recruited by pimps may have parents who don’t care them, Hytrek said. The pimps will look to see if the girls have enough self-esteem to fight them off, he said. The pimps could find the girls at a party or a high school football game.
Underneath the psychological issues, human trafficking is an issue of supply and demand.
“It’s a very dirty symptom of poverty is what I see,” Webster said of prostitution.
Sen. McGill and Chris Webster talk about who is at risk.
Advocates stressed the need to continue working on the project – in part by raising awareness.
Last year, State Sen. Amanda McGill of Lincoln began introducing legislation as part of her three-year plan. Last year’s legislation created of the state human trafficking task force.
Webster is part of the task force and serves on the public awareness group. The other groups are studying the extent of the problem and creating a law enforcement curriculum.
This year, McGill introduced LB255, which prevents children under 18 from being charged with prostitution and makes solicitation of a minor a felony. The bill has been named a speaker priority bill and McGill expects the legislation to pass after it is amended.
The bill was changed in part because of financial concerns.
“It’s important this session to not ask for too much money for projects especially since I may want some money for services next year,” McGill said.
Technology has changed how human trafficking works, by changing how and where girls are solicited and advertised. “We don’t see too many of them out on the streets anymore, most of them are doing it online,” Hytrek said.
Sen. McGill and Chris Webster talk about how technology has changed human trafficking.
But technology can be used for good. A group of UNL students created The Red Shawl – a website with resources for all in the state.
There website includes specific tabs for teachers, high school students, concerned citizens and parents. For example, teachers can find lesson plans.
The effort isn’t just limited to one website, however – Facebook and Twitter are additional mediums used to achieve the Red Shawl’s mission.
“We’re only going to be able to make something like this work if everybody’s contributing,” said Pat Radigan, graduate assistant to Professor Sriyani Tidball.
The group decided to call the website The Red Shawl because it was less threatening than something with human trafficking or slavery, Tidball said.
The red shawl in Native American culture signifies survival of sex abuse, according to the website.
“It’s only the beginning,” Tidball said. “We want it to be Nebraska’s website and we want more content all the time from you.”
Activists know that there is still a long way to go to fight human trafficking in Nebraska.
“Being a person who advocates for homeless and poor, this will get worse before it gets better,” Webster said.