SOUTH SIOUX CITY (KTIV) — You’ve likely heard the expression, not in my backyard. But human trafficking, referred to as modern-day slavery, or the buying and selling of human beings, is happening in our backyards.
According to The Set Me Free Project, a non-profit organization in Omaha, Nebraska, focused on fighting sex trafficking through prevention education, Siouxland is a hot spot for sex trafficking.
The Polaris Project indicates, in just the first six months of 2018, in Iowa, 110 calls came into the National Human Trafficking Hotline and of those calls, 38 were identified as human trafficking cases. In Nebraska, 114 calls were made and 36 were identified as human trafficking. Twenty-seven calls were made in South Dakota, and nine were confirmed to be cases of human trafficking. And nationwide, of the more than 14-thousand (14,117) calls coming into the hotline, nearly five-thousand-150 (5,147) were cases of human trafficking.
Organizations such as The Set Me Free Project are fanning out in Siouxland to help communities become more aware of what’s happening around them.
“Our topic is not at all funny,” said Stephanie Olson, CEO of The Set Me Free Project, Omaha, Nebraska.
Stephanie Olson, CEO of The Set Me Free Project, is telling this packed room of residents at Northeast Community College in South Sioux City about a seemingly normal 10th grader who was a good student with a job and a family.
“And then she was getting pimped out by her boyfriend every night. Mom and Dad none the wiser. Living right at home,” said Olson.
Appearances can be deceiving when it comes to human trafficking, described as the buying and selling of human beings, and involving force, fraud and coercion.
“I’m just shocked. The stereotypical guy in the white van, down by the river is not what’s happening here and it’s just scary because it could be anybody,” said Sloan McMillan, Parent and ESL Teacher, Northeast Community College.
“It’s going on around us. We just aren’t aware of it,” said Todd Strom, Parent and Superintendent, South Sioux City Community Schools.
That’s why these mothers, fathers, school employees and others traveled to Northeast Community College in South Sioux City, Nebraska, to learn more about human trafficking. They want to know how to spot it.
“I’ve never seen it. I’ve never seen it. I’ve only heard whispers about it,” said McMillan.
They want to be know where to look for it.
“Absolutely in hotels, you’ll see a lot of the victimization process going on. But what I tell people is in our coffee shops, anywhere kids are, in our schools, in our communities and in our restaurants, anywhere, traffickers are looking to lure our kids,” said Olson.
They want to know what to do about it.
“Definitely there are some good tools you can take away regarding some of the grooming steps that some of these traffickers take with our young people,” said Strom.
The truth, when it comes to human trafficking, sex trafficking and labor trafficking is harsh. Prevention experts say traffickers can even be family members: mothers, fathers, and other relatives or loved ones.
Although the young often are targets, no one is safe from becoming a victim.
“Girls can be victims. Boys can be victims. Men can be traffickers. Women can be traffickers,” said Olson.
Trafficking is happening in the heart of the Midwest.
“Interstate is a big reason we are a hot spot. But I also think it’s because we’re awesome people and we’re friendly and we’re trusting. And traffickers take advantage of that,” said Olson.
The experts say building relationships with young people and thoroughly monitoring their social media is paramount to driving a wedge between traffickers and their potential victims because predators don’t always hide in the dark.
“It’s about somebody coming in and building a relationship with our kids. And so when our kids are talking about a friend, we may think they’re talking about a real friend, when in fact, they are talking about a predator,” said Olson.
“When we look at smaller communities, we think, well it’s definitely not going to happen there. But we are seeing such a huge increase of it everywhere,” said Olson.
The good news? Everyone can play a part in derailing human trafficking before it ever happens.
“There’s just a ton of facts we as parents and community members need to be aware of, and also some steps and actions you can take as a citizen,” said Strom.
“The more you get them in a conversation, the more you can find out and you’re able to check the warning signs,” said McMillan.
“So I will ask kids, so tell me what a predator looks like,” said Olson.
A predator can be anyone, when it comes to human trafficking.
If you see something suspicious that might involve human trafficking, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 888-3737-888.
To contact The Set Me Free Project, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or call (402) 521-3080.