Human Trafficking, It’s Happening Here

Within the past two years, Iowa has seen a sharp increase in human trafficking cases. Advocates are making it their mission to enlighten communities about the commonality of human trafficking in their areas and how to prevent the widespread dilemma.

On July 18, 2018, 20-year-old University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts disappeared without a trace when she was going for a run around her hometown of Brooklyn, Iowa. Her disappearance would gather attention across the country under speculation of human trafficking and soon, the United States would open its eyes to a silent dilemma and analyze the numbers of people going missing both locally and worldwide.

The National Human Trafficking Hotline reported 20 cases of human trafficking, with a total of 16 high-level victims in Iowa in 2012. These numbers then jumped in 2018 with 28 human trafficking cases, 20 high indicator victims, and the addition of 14 calls from victims and survivors. The Polaris Project, an organization striving to defeat sex trafficking, reported a 24% increase over 2015 of survivors that reached out to the Polaris-operated hotlines across the United States.  

Sister Shirley Fineran, a professor at Briar Cliff University teaching social work and an advocate for human trafficker victims, travels to different venues educating communities and spreading awareness of the risks that could lead someone to be trafficked.  “It’s modern-day slavery,” Fineran said. “As the second leading crime, it generates almost $62 billion per year in the United States.”


Back in 2014, Fineran contributed to the foundation of the Siouxland Coalition Against Human Trafficking. From there she founded the Siouxland Restoration Center, a restoration center to aid survivors of human trafficking, along with the Lila Mae’s House, a center for adult victims of human trafficking, meeting thousands of survivors along the way.

“A popular way for individuals to become entrapped by a trafficker is to be guaranteed a job that is far from their home, or promising to solve their problems by leaving somewhere. When they get where they are going, all of their identification is taken and all of their money, so they have no way to pay for anything,” Fineran said. “They become slaves to whoever brought them there.”

The age for targets ranges from 13-24, but the Center for Court Innovation found that children aged 12-17 were purchased by an average of 5.4 customers per day, versus 4.4 times per day for those aged 18-24.

“With social media constantly evolving, human traffickers are constantly evolving how the prey on their victims,” Fineran said. “Now it’s easier than ever for traffickers to target children because they’re so exposed to technology, but no one is monitoring what he or she are actually doing online.”

Often times children left alone after school or other events are targeted specifically, with traffickers who will manipulate children with threats against friends or family members or will act helpless to gain the child’s trust.  

“These are people who have no sense of right and wrong,” Fineran said. “They feel no guilt about threatening and carrying through on threats.”

The issues with human trafficking don’t stop once someone is saved from the situation. Convincing a victim to leave their trafficker is difficult since it requires the victim to tell someone about what is happening, something survivors of human trafficking often struggle to overcome.

“When a person is caught selling drugs, the drugs are evidence, and law enforcement can see it,” she said. “With trafficking, unless the person gives them up, they don’t have any evidence.”

Victims are often hesitant to give up their trafficker.

“Often, the victims have had a longer, closer relationship with their trafficker than with anybody else in their life,” Fineran said. “Even though he beats her, abuses her and makes her do things she doesn’t want to do, he’s the only one who cares for her, in a way.”

Fineran encourages parents to keep an eye on their children’s phones as one way to help prevent the problem.

“You need to know if they are talking to someone that you don’t know or they don’t know,” Fineran said. “You could be saving their life.”

Fineran then went onto discuss a new documentary called “Gridshock,” which exposes the hidden reality behind human trafficking in Iowa.

Set to be released in the spring of 2019, the documentary by filmmaker Vanessa McNeal and journalist Alec Shuman explores the world of traffickers and buyers and why this culture is  in Iowa specifically. The film features survivors of sex trafficking, local and federal law enforcement, advocates, politicians, and a recovering sex addict, exploring all perspectives of this issue.

McNeal, a native Iowan, experienced child sexual abuse and neglect, along with being sexually assaulted at 15 years old, inspiring her to advocate for others who have experienced these situations  

During an interview with CBS2, McNeal declared “We’re very proud of our ‘Iowa nice’ attitude and persona, but people truly don’t believe the severity and the nature of this horrifying crime happening here.”

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