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If you think sex trafficking is only a problem in metro communities, you have another think coming.

A report released last week indicates sex traffickers target rural communities where people are more trusting and unsuspecting of criminal activity.

“You know, they prey upon girls out here in the Midwest because we’re naïve, because we don’t know about the big cities,” said one of the survivors quoted in the report. “We’re a lot more trusting and they love to hit these small towns. I mean, that’s a big thing. People don’t realize. They think because in a small town, USA, population 1,500, that they’re safe. No! They’re more vulnerable than anybody else. You know? You don’t even lock your door.”

Sex trafficking, according to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC), occurs when “people are sexually exploited by means of force, fraud or coercion. By law, sex trafficking includes commercial sexual exploitation of children, meaning anyone under the age of 18 who is working in the sex industry is a trafficking victim even if there is no force or coercion present.”

Shireen Rajaram, Ph.D., associate professor, health promotion, social and behavioral health, at UNMC’s College of Public Health and Sriyani Tidball, assistant professor of practice, College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, co-authored the report, “Nebraska Sex Trafficking Survivors Speak – A Qualitative Research Study” that was commissioned by the Women’s Fund of Omaha.

Results from the study were used by the Women’s Fund to develop the booklet “Nothing About Us Without Us.”

“People generally believe sex trafficking is a problem in other countries, but it’s happening in every state in the United States, including Nebraska,” Rajaram states in a UNMC press release dated July 18. “Our nation has failed to call trafficking what it is – a public health problem.”

The first-time report in Nebraska includes interviews with female survivors of sex trafficking. Of those interviewed, 17 women live in the Omaha-Lincoln area and five live in rural Nebraska. “As children, 12 of the women had been in foster care and one had lived in a group home,” the release states.

Cass County Sheriff William Bruggemann said his department has always been able to retrieve minors who are reported missing. Once they turn 18 and are considered adults, finding them is much more difficult.

“Cass County, being so close to Omaha and Lincoln, certainly has the potential for sex trafficking,” he said.

Brueggemann added that, based on his research, most initial contacts made between sex traffickers and children start on the Internet and social media.

Sex traffickers also attend events with large crowds of people including fairs, College World Series and concerts. They look for children who are alone, runaways or those who are very vulnerable.

“They make themselves as attractive as they can. They might start out saying, ‘Let me buy you a funnel cake.’ or ‘Go on this ride with me. I hate going on rides by myself,’” Bruggemann said.

Brueggemann said the entry age into the commercial sex industry is between 12-14 years old. Eighty percent are female. That’s why parents should continue to drive home the Stranger Danger message no matter how old their child is. “We teach young kids not to talk to strangers, but we don’t stress it when they get older,” he said.

Although doesn’t want to be an alarmist about sex trafficking, he wants everyone to be aware that it is possible in this area. Brueggemann urged youth to always stay in a group when at large events when it’s easy for someone to get lost in a crowd and disappear.

Traffickers target children who are alone or seem to lack confidence. NHTRC states that children are recruited through false promises including money, love, employment and sometimes through kidnapping or abduction.

“There is a woeful lack of awareness about the subject among community leaders, law enforcement, teachers, health care professionals and the general public,” Rajaram states in the press release.

Many times, no one believes the victim of sex trafficking. “I think for me that was, like my biggest issue…,” another survivor quoted in the report stated. “They labeled me as a prostitute and not a trafficking victim. And, I had to explain to a lot of people, like yes, I might have been doing prostitution, but it wasn’t my choice. It wasn’t like, if I wanted to stop, I could stop, you know. There were times where I wish I could’ve stopped and I tell people all the time. I say, ‘I’d rather have been dead than doing what I was doing a lot of times, but I didn’t have a choice.’”

Brueggemann said physical abuse, drugs and threats against family members are used to keep the victims in the system.

According to an article published in the Lincoln Journal Star in September 2015, the Lincoln Police Department accepted an invitation from the Cook County Sheriff’s Office in Illinois to take part in a sex-trafficking sting along with 17 other states. “In all, 1,032 people were arrested. Sixteen men were arrested in Lincoln,” the article stated.

The Journal Star also reported in January about a man and woman charged with human trafficking in Hall County. They were accused of sex trafficking of a woman in December 2015 in three states.

The report stressed the need for a comprehensive statewide plan to combat trafficking in Nebraska.

“There is an urgent need to implement strategies to address prevention, protection and prosecution simultaneously,” the report states.

Convictions of sex traffickers have been far and few between. According to the U.S. State Department, for every 800 people trafficked in 2006, only one person was convicted.

Sex trafficking is a lucrative business, according to the NHTRC. “Like any business, legal or illegal, the demand drives the supply,” information from the NHTRC states. “Humans can be sold multiple times a day, seven days a week for several years, while drugs and weapons can only be sold once.”

The report states stiffer penalties are needed for sex traffickers as well as follow-up investigations of reported incidents, shaming strategies such as sex trafficking registry and publicly identifying them and rehabilitation programs.

University of Nebraska-Omaha is hosting a panel discussion 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Aug. 17 at the UN-O Thompson Alumni Center, Bootstrapper Hall, 6705 Dodge St. It will be sponsored by the Women’s Leadership Council of the United Way of the Midlands in partnership with the Women’s Fund of Omaha.

Panelists include Meghan Malik, trafficking response coordinator, Women’s Fund of Omaha, as moderator; Anna Brewer, former FBI Special Agent and Women’s Fund of Omaha sex trafficking training consultant; Rachel Pointer, liaison, Liaison Free the People Movement; Rajaram; and Alicia Webber, human trafficking task force coordinator/project manager, The Salvation Army’s Fight to End Trafficking Program.

There is a charge for lunch, but people may attend without purchasing lunch. People are asked to RSVP by Aug. 3 to Mikaela Borecky at Events@UWMidlands.org or call 402.522.7908.

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