Human trafficking continues in Nebraska, despite efforts to help victims
Story, photos, video by Katie Nelson, NewsNetNebraska
Kristy Childs was 12 years old and living in Joplin, Missouri when she became a victim of human trafficking.
“I began running away from an abusive home,” she said.
It is hard for a 12-year-old to survive on the streets.
“A day could seem as long as a week,” Childs, executive director of Veronica’s Voice in Kansas City, said. “Being fed, and what was I going to eat? And where was I going to find shelter? Those were the basics of what I was looking for.”
She said her prostitution started with truck drivers. At the time, she said she didn’t know what she was being prostituted, but even after she realized what was happening, it didn’t stop for several more years. Childs was trafficked for 24 years before she was able to save up enough money to buy her freedom.
Human trafficking is a hidden crime, and it can happen anywhere — even Lincoln, Nebraska.
A crime revealed
In 2007, Al Riskowski, executive director of Nebraska Family Alliance, said he accidentally found out about human trafficking in Lincoln. He was looking for an excavator to move dirt on his family’s farm but came across “escort services” in the Yellow Pages instead.
“The way they were stated certainly sounded like prostitution to me,” he said. “But I thought, ‘how could they be advertising in the Yellow Pages?’”
But the problem was nothing new.
Public Safety Director Tom Casady said he’s seen human trafficking happening in Lincoln since he became police chief in 1974.
“I’ve seen this throughout my career,” he said. “The phrase ‘human trafficking’ really wasn’t in wide usage until comparatively recently, maybe within the last decade, but the behavior is no different.”
But no one did anything.
“Our human trafficking statutes have only been written since I got here in the legislature,” said Lincoln Sen. Amanda McGill. “So, within the last few years.”
Laws to combat human trafficking have picked up some momentum in the Unicameral since the Governor’s Human Trafficking Task Force was created in 2009, but McGill said her legislation still faces many road blocks.
She said one of the biggest problems is that people don’t really know what human trafficking is or they don’t know it’s happening in Nebraska.
A different image
“Prostitution is human trafficking, and we need people and the press to start seeing it that way,” McGill said. “I’ve been working on this issue and trying to educate people for a couple of years now, and I still get reporters saying, ‘Well, this isn’t a problem here,’ or ‘Not in rural Nebraska.’”
“People, sometimes, when they hear ‘human trafficking’ they conjure up images of abductions taking place in third-world countries,” said Casady. “They’re not thinking about the exploitation of vulnerable people that happens right here, in their own community.”
Even then, human trafficking doesn’t always look the way people expect. While abductions and extreme violence happen, victims are usually coerced to have sex for money through other means. McGill said it is common for victims to be blackmailed or, if a person is in the United States illegally, her pimp might threaten to turn her in if she doesn’t comply.
The average age for a person to get into prostitution is between 12 and 14 years old. Often times these kids are being exploited by family members, or they are running away from abusive home lives. Casady said these “throw-away” kids might escape the abusive situation in their homes, but they usually end up in the care of an adult who gives them a place to live or food in return for sex acts.
And it can happen to anyone.
“It’s foster care youth who run away and don’t have parents and get picked up by people who are trafficking,” McGill said. “It’s suburban youth who are being manipulated by some of their peers or some college-age kids into being a part of trafficking, while living under their parents’ roof. It’s the little children who have parents or friends who begin to sexually abuse them, and before they know it, they’re being sold.”
Nikki Siegel, director of outreach at I’ve Got a Name in Lincoln, said victims who enter prostitution willingly don’t have any other choices. She said, sometimes, girls will perform sex acts in exchange for a place to stay while they are homeless, or because of a lack of education and work experience, they decide to work in a club.
“It’s choice out of not having a choice,” Siegel said. “Nobody’s going to wake up and choose to do that one day. It’s just not realistic.”
Putting the brakes on trafficking
As more people become aware about human trafficking in Nebraska, the effort to stop it has grown. Non-profits like I’ve Got a Name work directly with victims. Lincoln police have also implemented a program that trains officers to look for signs of trafficking if they are arresting a prostitute or pimp.
But Childs said the biggest problem isn’t the pimps or the girls who are being sold. She and Siegel said the real problem is the johns, or the men who are soliciting sex, because they are not being punished.
Childs said the problem is based on the simple economic law of supply and demand. However, while the suppliers (pimps) and supplies (prostitutes) are being arrested, fined and sent to jail, often the demand (johns) is not.
“The pimps are doing what, generationally, they’ve been taught,” Siegel said. “They don’t know any other way. They need support, and they need to go to therapy and figure out what they’re doing and try to gain their own resources.”
“We could take every pimp in this nation and put them in prison,” Childs said, “and if we don’t do something about the majority of white men who purchase, who are the demand side of this issue … we’re just going to create more pimps.”
But trafficking is a vicious cycle that can end with something as simple as education. Siegel said victims need support to develop strong self-esteem and need to be given resources to recognize that they have different choices in life. McGill said it should start even sooner than that. She said boys and girls should be taught the dynamics of healthy relationships when they are young.
However it is approached, Childs said there can’t be exceptions anymore.
“We need people to wise up, open their eyes and become abolitionists and say, ‘this is a system that we have to destroy,’” she said.