Human trafficking

Human trafficking — or sex trafficking; the terms are interchangeable — can be as simple as one person trading his girlfriend for sex to support her meth habit, or large operations that cross state borders.

KEARNEY — Before being elected state attorney general in 2014, Doug Peterson had no idea that sex trafficking took place in Nebraska.

He and his wife had become supporters of Tiny Hands Ministry, an international non-profit started in Nepal that aimed to eradicate trafficking. “We wondered, how can people do that?” he said.

Then he came home and learned that 40 statewide leaders soon would gather to discuss sex trafficking in Nebraska. “I said, ‘You’re kidding.’” he said. He’s been waging war against human trafficking ever since.

Peterson spoke last month at the University of Nebraska at Kearney as part of the International Justice Mission’s Justice Week. The IJM spreads awareness of global human trafficking and works to combat it.

After sharing gripping stories, Peterson urged adults to become foster parents “to show these young people what a healthy home looks like. We need people who can love kids who have seen only abuse,” he said.

“They need someone in their lives to show them normalcy. Whatever we can do to provide places where young kids can see people who love them and want the best for them, it is amazing how that can have an impact on a kid’s life.”

Heartbreaking stories

In 2015, Peterson created the Nebraska Human Trafficking Task Force. It has since trained 3,000 law enforcement officials and service providers to deal with traffickers. He also has learned some deeply disturbing facts.

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“If we see two young girls in a vehicle, we’re training officers to ask for IDs and determine whether they can answer questions from law enforcement. If not, we might be seeing signs of trafficking,” he said.

“If you notice a young woman under the control of someone who is not a parent, if she’s very quiet and won’t answer questions and is often dressed in provocative clothing, and if you notice something ‘doesn’t feel right,’ we encourage you to talk to law enforcement,” he said.

Providing food, drugs

Human trafficking — or sex trafficking; the terms are interchangeable — can be as simple as one person trading his girlfriend for sex to support her meth habit, or large operations that cross state borders.

“In a local case, a 20-year-old man trafficked a 17-year-old girl who was addicted to meth. He’d provide her meth and traffic her to make a lot of money. He kept her dependent on him with meth. If he sold her four times in one day, he could make $20,000 in a week,” he said.

In Lincoln, a 20-year-old man trafficked his 16-year-old girl over the high school lunch hour, Peterson said.

“One woman, about 45, worked with her husband in trafficking in south Omaha. They recruited their tall, handsome nephew to go to sporting events and malls — “anywhere where young kids hang out" — and identify vulnerable girls. He gave his cell phone number to two sisters, aged 15 and 13, and invited them to a party. The 15-year-old called him when she ran away from home, Peterson said.

The man was part of a sex trafficking network in Council Bluffs, Iowa. He brought the girls in and showed them pornography to explain what he expected of them. Then he fed them pizza, beer and marijuana.

At 2 a.m., a young man took the 15-year-old to a casino, where he trafficked her, then brought her back. “She was distraught realizing what she’d been pulled into,” Peterson said.

She got her sister and dashed outside. They found a car running and climbed into it. When police showed up, the teen told her story. The case was successfully prosecuted, Peterson said.

‘Daddy trafficker’

He said a so-called “daddy trafficker” tells vulnerable young girls that they are beautiful. He offers to provide them a place to stay, food, clothing and “their ‘drug of choice,’ “although it’s usually marijuana because harsh drugs make them unuseful,” Peterson said.

“This ‘daddy’ develops a great degree of loyalty. If a girl is escaping a bad stepfather, for example, and being fed and told she’s special, it’s difficult for her when we come in and say, ‘you are being used as a slave’ so we can prosecute. That’s difficult. It doesn’t happen overnight,” he said.

Then there was the trucker who intently watched a mother selling Girl Scout cookies at a truck stop. He couldn’t keep his eyes off her 5-year-old daughter. He went up to the mother and dropped a wad of cash on the table. “He was trying to solicit the mother to get the daughter,” Peterson said. “He was stalking her. The mother packed up and called law enforcement."

Peterson said many sites on the internet feed real sicknesses, “and some of those people are going to act out.”

Stories from Omaha

In Omaha, sex trafficking is most prevalent downtown, in west Omaha, and across the state line, according to research done by Creighton University.

“The economic value is that buying girls and giving them commodities, feeding, clothing and housing them, and trafficking them is extremely profitable,” Peterson said.

A man near Omaha was part of an international pedophile network. He managed his file at night, Peterson said. The FBI caught him. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

“Don’t think it’s all low-income people,” Peterson said. “This happens across the board. Also, numbers are hard to prove, but we have more young boys who are victims than we recognize,” he said.

No easy answers

Sex trafficking victims are often as young as age 12 and 13. The trend peaks around age 17 and 18, then decreases by the late 20s.

“Women who have aged out of the market now traffic other women,” he said.

When traffickers are caught, prison may not be the best solution. Peterson talked about a 36-year-old mother who trafficked her daughter, 16, and her niece, 25, to finance her meth habit. “But what do I accomplish by sending that woman away for 25 years? Do I do that 16-year-old daughter any favors by sending her mom away?” he asked

He chose not to go for a conviction. He sent the mother for treatment instead.

Peterson said adults in religious and youth organizations often prey on young people. When he was young, a baseball coach tried to entice him into a relationship, “but I figured out what the guy was up to,” he said. He said no.

Tightening laws

Peterson said many Nebraskans are surprised to learn that sex trafficking exists here. “When I ran for attorney general, I thought I’d be in a better position to move the needle on this issue, but as I was campaigning, someone asked me if trafficking was a ‘good issue.’ But do we set public policy because of good political issues?”

The Nebraska Legislature is cracking down, he said.

Last week, the Legislature unanimously gave first-round approval to a bill that would allow law enforcement officials to tap phones of traffickers who sell women and children. Such traffickers would also face prosecution decades after their crimes. There would no longer be a statute of limitations for cases involving minors.

He said that when he was elected five years ago, a national organization gave Nebraska a “D’ rating in trafficking. That rating has now climbed to a B.

Healing takes time

Peterson also has learned a lot about trafficking from medical people. In one case, “a young man brought in a young woman of about 16. The man provided all the ID and handled the discussion,” Peterson said. “The doctor kept asking questions. He saw a bar code tattoo, the classic sign of a young woman being controlled. When the doctor saw that bar code, he knew it was a case of trafficking. He called police.”

Lodging industry personnel are being trained to identify classic signs of sex trafficking, he said.

Support networks are critical for helping trafficking victims find new lives.

“It’s intimidating for a 14-year-old girl to have a law enforcement officer in the initial interview, but advocacy people can develop trust with her so she will talk,” Peterson said.

Regardless, healing requires patience and time. “High school counselors said it can take a year or more to get their psychological perspectives balanced out. If we find four young women being trafficked, we have to find someone who can develop trust with them,” he said.

He also said girls often are afraid to prosecute.

That’s why he hopes to get communities plugged into the effort. “People who care can make a huge difference in these kids’ lives,” he said.

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