Human trafficking prevalent in state

October 18, 2018

Human trafficking is real, prevalent and it can affect anyone.

That was the message at a forum Tuesday night hosted by Norfolk Rotary at Northeast Community College.

The forum was headlined by three speakers: Doug Peterson, the state attorney general; Stephen Patrick O’Meara, executive director of the Omaha Coalition on Human Trafficking; and Mike Bowersox, an investigator with the Madison County Sheriff’s Office.

Human trafficking is a modern system of slavery, where more than 20 million people worldwide are exploited against their will primarily for sex or labor. In the United States, about 80 percent of cases are sex trafficking.

The three speakers highlighted the realities of human trafficking, with one of the main messages being that human trafficking is prevalent even in Norfolk.

“As a population center in a relatively rural area, this is considered a good market for this activity,” said O’Meara, who added that victims of trafficking are coming from around the region, including Omaha, Lincoln, Sioux City and Sioux Falls.

O’Meara also sought to dispel the idea that human trafficking is strictly an urban problem, as he cited one human trafficking case that was based in Upland, Neb., a town of barely more than 100 people.

O’Meara and Bowersox gave several real examples of trafficking victims and perpetrators active in and around Norfolk. Some of the victims and perpetrators are still at-large and difficult to apprehend because they are forced into a highly nomadic lifestyle.

Peterson said human trafficking first came to his attention about a decade ago. Since then, a number of laws have been passed to help victims and crack down on perpetrators, and Peterson launched a task force to combat the problem in Nebraska.

One of the major points made by each of the speakers was that anyone can become a victim. Victims come from all races and ethnic groups, different incomes, family situations and age ranges.

But among the most at risk are children who are homeless or runaways. Victims are deceived into trafficking through promises of a better life, money or opportunities.

“The most common lie told to victims by their traffickers is ‘I love you,’ ” O’Meara said.

O’Meara said a crucial step to curtailing human trafficking to recognize the many signs. There are many indicators that vary from case to case, but there are several common links.

Victims travel frequently, are not in control of their documents or finances and are often in poor physical and mental health. Trafficking tends to gravitate around hotels, motels, casinos and truck stops.

O’Meara said an often surprising fact is that nearly 90 percent of victims visit a medical profession while being trafficked. When at a doctor’s office, its not uncommon for someone else to speak for them.

They often show signs of physical abuse, drug addiction and mental trauma. Some victims also have distinctive tattoos that indicate they are “owned” by someone.

Peterson said one of the most difficult aspects of combating human trafficking is helping victims after they are freed.

“This isn’t a simple 30-day program. It takes years of constant work and support to help these people,” he said.

Many victims are slow to trust law enforcement and social workers, and it’s very easy to lose track of them if they decide to return to their trafficker, Bowersox said.

Peterson said another way to help prevent trafficking is for more people to become foster parents and help at-risk children.

O’Meara said it’s important that people in industries exposed to human trafficking receive the training needed to spot and help victims. These industries include healthcare, transportation, hospitality, education and direct service providers.

The Norfolk Rotary chapter is starting to help tackle the problem by training local hospitality industry workers in recognizing the signs of trafficking.