Four hundred people trained on human trafficking during symposium
GERING — Scottsbluff. Sidney. Kimball. Chadron. Even the small town of Whitney, Nebraska. Population 76.
Those are the communities cited by the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office as having reports of human trafficking since 2016, according to information released during a symposium on human trafficking Wednesday.
More than 400 people attended the symposium, hosted by the Panhandle Regional Human Trafficking Task Force, to learn about human trafficking, signs of human trafficking and its victims. “This crime thrives in plain view,” Anna Brewer, a former FBI agent and investigator with the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office, said.
Trafficking occurs in Scottsbluff, Nebraska. During the Panhandle Regional Task Force on Dec. 30, 2018 first operation, Brewer said, two people showed up wanting to show up to buy her and her “15-year-old daughter.”
“This is not a New York, L.A. or Chicago problem,” she said. “This is a Nebraska problem. ... It is right here and it is in our backyard.”
While Brewer spoke heavily about sex trafficking, Glen Parks, who leads the state’s human trafficking efforts as coordinator of the Nebraska Human Trafficking Task Force also touched on another area — labor trafficking. Cases have occurred locally and in the state involving labor trafficking. Parker pointed to the case of 2 Indian nationals, convicted and sentenced earlier this year after they held their nephew at a Kimball hotel for 15 months, forcing him to work under the guise of paying off a debt.
“You are being recruited to join the team, to serve as a look out,” Parks told the crowd. Many of the people in attendance were in health careers, but others included teachers, county attorneys, law enforcement and people in the hotel industry.
“You are strategically placed. No matter who you are,” Parks said. “You live in your neighborhood. There may be something that you see. ... You shop at a grocery store, get gas, work at a hotel. You know what is odd and what fits in.”
Parks compared human trafficking to modern day slavery, though he noted that human trafficking laws are relatively new in the United States. Human trafficking laws were spurred by the case of a Chelsea, Michigan, farming couple who recruited two men with mental incapacities to live and work on their farm. Eventually, the couple did not pay the two men, verbally abused and isolated the men. Authorities were able convict the two farmers of involuntary servitude. However, on appeal, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the district court had erred in defining psychological coercion, overturning the convictions. As a result of that decision, Congress enacted the Trafficking Victims Protection Act in 2000. Nebraska followed with its own law in 2006, which was amended in 2017 to increase penalties for human trafficking.
Also, Parks said, the 2017 amendment also added solicitation to the Nebraska statute, meaning that buyers in sex trafficking could also be arrested and convicted of sex trafficking.
In labor trafficking, people are forced into labor, either by physical force or restrained; through the use of the legal system, such as threatening to have a person deported; by controlling a person’s identification or documentation, such as a driver’s license; through exploitation of functional or mental impairment or through threat of financial harm.
In Nebraska, even attempting trafficking is the same as committing the crime, Parks said. There have been convictions in Nebraska of labor trafficking, in the restaurant, construction, hotel and other industries. He said Nebraskans will see more of a focused effort on labor trafficking by the task force.
The symposium was largely about sex trafficking, which is selling/buying sex from a person. Brewer addressed that there are cynics about authorities enforcing sex trafficking laws, persons who believe that prostitution is just two people engaged in consensual acts. However, largely, she and Parks said, when looking at the totality of circumstances, traffickers exist on building a climate of fear and exploiting victim vulnerabilities, using force, fraud and coercion to make someone engage in commercial sex.
She told people to throw out the Hollywood-version of a sex trafficker — a guy in a purple suit.
“They are people who look like me,” Brewer said.
In fact, different speakers highlighted, most reports have shown that the most common buyers in self-trafficking are white males, well educated and well connected. One speaker, Crysta Price, a Creighton researcher, describe Minot, South Dakota, as one of the top locations for sex trafficking, as men are away from families, working on pipelines. In fact, with the Keystone XL project coming to the state, efforts are underway to work with contractors and others to prevent sex trafficking.
As the symposium was occurring, Brewer said, she could post an ad for her 9-year-old girl and within the time it took her to type out the ad, and put her phone down for a couple of minutes, five to 15 people would respond. She pulled up two websites, showing ads that were advertising sex in the Scottsbluff area posted during the symposium.
“This happens. This happens in our community,” Brewer said.
Trafficking is largely a mobile business. Parks cited statistics that showed that 84.3 percent of sex trafficking is Interned-based. Also, in more rural areas, traffickers, and trafficking victims, are more likely to come from outside of the state.
Officials were asked often what people can do to help prevent trafficking.
One thing that Brewer mentioned was teaching youth about healthy relationships — for example, a common ploy for human traffickers is to pretend to be an underage girl’s boyfriend, called the “lover boy ploy.”
People can also get involved by learning about human trafficking, and to call 911 if you see something that is an emergency. For example, Brewer said, there are often social media posts about kidnapping attempts at stores, but often times, no one has contacted authorities to report those purported attempts. If it is not an emergency, but you see signs that may be human trafficking, Brewer said, contact the National Human Trafficking Hotline, which operates 24-hours a day. The hotline can be reached at 1-888-373-7888 or by texting “help” to 233722 (BeFree).
For more information on human trafficking, visit the Nebraska Attorney General’s website, ago.nebraska.gov.