Bringing Light to the Darkness of Human Trafficking (Trafficking in Persons)

Local organization Chains Interrupted spreads awareness in Cedar Rapids conference

iowa presenters 2016
Presenters answer questions during a conference on human trafficking at New Covenant Bible Church in Robins on Thursday, Nov. 17, 2016. The daylong conference was hosted by Christian-focused anti-trafficking group Chains Interrupted and featured speakers from Christian survivor services, state and local government and victim advocacy groups. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

ROBINS — Nearly 200 people turned out Thursday to learn more about human trafficking, what it looks like, the consequences of the crime and how to prevent it in Iowa.

A conference on the issue, hosted by Chains Interrupted, a Cedar Rapids-based group fighting human trafficking, took place at New Covenant Bible Church in Robins. It drew representatives from the Iowa Department of Human Services, area churches, youth shelters, schools, law enforcement agencies and other human trafficking awareness groups.

Human trafficking is a crime where a third party benefits by using force, fraud or coercion to compel a victim into performing sex acts or labor services. Here are four take-aways from Thursday’s event:

1. Who is trafficked?

Traffickers target the vulnerable, said Teresa Davidson, head of Chains Interrupted, and Stephen O’Meara, human trafficking coordinator for the Nebraska Department of Justice, who spoke of his experience battling trafficking in the Midwest. Anyone isolated, unable to defend themselves or challenged mentally, physically or socially poses as a potential victim. Those in poverty or who have addictions are also frequently targeted. Oftentimes, the victims are teens or children.

“Where does that put at-risk youth in our community?” Davidson asked. “Pretty much everywhere, just like adults who have these vulnerabilities.”

O’Meara cited statistics from the Iowa Attorney General’s Human Trafficking Enforcement and Prosecution Initiative, that show runaway youth are most often trafficked within 36 hours of leaving home.

Calling children who are victims of trafficking “prostitutes” is harmful and factually incorrect, O’Meara said. Children cannot consent to perform sexual acts, and they’re often the most sought for trafficking.

“There is no such thing as a child prostitute, but I’m not going as far as to say there’s not a child pimp,” he said. “You (a customer) pay the most for minors and pregnant women because pregnant women can’t get pregnant.”

Someone who has an adverse childhood event is much more likely to be trafficked, as well.

2. How they are trafficked

Trafficking can occur through prostitution, family members who exploit a child for payment or substances or by someone who has groomed a victim into believing the trafficker cares about them, experts said. Emotional, physical and financial control are some of the ways a trafficker keeps the upper hand. Shame, fear and drug addiction are common tools used by traffickers.

“I’ve met victims who were unable to decide whether they needed the light on or not (at night),” Davidson said on survivors’ inability to take control of their own lives.

Kristina Glackin, a trafficking survivor, shared her story of being trafficked for two weeks at a hotel in Las Vegas when she was 18. Though a potential customer helped her escape instead of furthering the abuse one night, she said she suffered from the effects of trafficking over the course of the next few years. Though she is now more stable, she said she got help after having panic attacks every day that were so severe they lasted four hours.

“Mentally, I never got out of that hotel room,” she said.

3. Stop the demand

Christian Shields, pastor of Christian Life Church in Cedar Rapids, said he believes he once suffered from a severe pornography addiction. Shields is working with Davidson to start a program called Stop the Demand that focuses on creating healthy ideas about sex. He says unhealthy ideas often lead to solicitation. Without solicitation, there would be no trafficking, he said.

4. Working together

Brad Fox, principal at Clear Creek Amana Middle School, and Sen. Kevin Kinney, spoke about how they worked together with law enforcement across the nation to take down a sex trafficking ring in 2005 that had branches in Conroy — a town of less than 200 people — Williamsburg, Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, Chicago and St. Paul, Minn. Kinney, who worked in the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office, helped shut down the ring and rescue a 13-year-old girl. They spoke about the importance of understanding that trafficking is happening in every community. They said law enforcement and school officials, awareness advocates and health professionals all must work together to end human trafficking.

“If it can happen in Conroy and Williamsburg ... it’s happening in Cedar Rapids, Iowa City,” Kinney said. “It’s everywhere. If I can rescue a kid or anyone from this business, that’s what I will do.”

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