Human trafficking - Growing problem in rural Iowa

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By Pam Reinig

Register Editor


On her worst days—and there were plenty of those—Mary prayed that God would end her life. She was tired of the abuse she suffered at the hands of a man she once trusted and a string of men she barely knew. She was tired of not having enough to eat. She was tired of not having clean clothes and good shoes unless she was “working.” 

She was tired—period.

“I was an object, not a human being,” said Mary, whose real name is not used here to protect her identity and privacy. “I was numb to the person I once was, and I had lost all hope.”

Many times she would stare into a mirror without recognizing the face of the young woman looking back at her. Once proud of her appearance, she was now often disheveled, unkempt and even dirty. There was no life in her eyes. She was a stranger to herself and not a very pleasant looking one at that.

Mary was a victim of human trafficking. She was “trafficked” when she was 18 and living in Dubuque. She shared her story at a recent church-sponsored presentation in Strawberry Point led by Jonathan Chambers who heads the anti-human trafficking division of Cedar Valley Friends of the Family, a non-profit organization that deals with violence and homelessness issues. One reason for the presentation was to increase awareness of the problem in Northeast Iowa.

“There is a huge misperception that (human trafficking) is not a rural Iowa problem or even an Iowa problem,” said Chambers. “Some of our biggest cases have come from rural Iowa and I think that’s because people here don’t ask challenging questions about the issue, which allows traffickers to thrive in rural communities.”

Chambers said hard data on victims is difficult to provide. Court cases have been tracked but they represent a small percentage of human trafficking activity. He did share, however, that since last August, CVFF has served 13 survivors. One of the state’s single, most brutal cases was from Winneshiek County.

Traffickers have a “type.” Generally, they prey on kids ages 12-15 who have a rough home life, who’ve been abused or who have substance abuse issues of their own.

“It’s estimated that 100,000 to 300,000 youth are on the streets every year and one-third of them is approached by a trafficker within 48 hours,” Chambers said. “Traffickers identify vulnerabilities and then they exploit them. Homeless kids and runaways are big targets.”

Mary was a bit older than the average victim when she was trafficked but she did have something in common with trafficked children.

“Some very traumatic things happened to me and instead of reaching out for help, I turned to drugs and alcohol at a young age,” she said.

Initially, Mary was used to move illegal drugs from Illinois to Iowa. That changed one day in Chicago when her trafficker took her to a hotel, took provocative photos of her , which he posted on the Internet, and then forced her to “have interactions” with men who responded to the posts. Though she didn’t say how long that period of her life lasted, she did share that she was able to break away “after some time.”

“Unfortunately, my life was still in shambles and I was extremely addicted to drugs,” she admitted. “I came into contact with my trafficker again and this time he took me to Memphis.”

According to Chambers, victims typically end up traveling a lot. It’s a good way to avoid detection and it takes victims out of their comfort zone, thus increasing their dependence on their trafficker.

Ironically, it was the back-and-forth travel that ultimately saved Mary.

“I was trafficked to Arkansas on a couple of occasions,” she recalled. “On the way back to Tennessee, my trafficker was pulled over for speeding. We’d had other encounters with law enforcement but this was the first officer that ever actually took action. He noticed the situation—me, a young girl with no identification, no place of residence and no belongings, traveling with a much older African American man. The officer separated us and that was the last time I saw my trafficker. I was able to call home and I was reunited with my family.”

Mary offered several suggestions for avoiding victimization beginning with safe use of the Internet. She also cautioned against giving out personal information over the Internet and warned about in-person meetings with someone you’ve connected with electronically.

“If you have problems, seek help from a person you trust—a family member, a teacher, a counselor,” she added. “Always be cautious of your surroundings and don’t ever be afraid to ask questions if your gut is telling you something (might be wrong).”

Chambers urges citizens to ask questions, as well. 

“The easiest thing to do when you see something suspicious is to say something to the authorities,” he said. “The situation might turn out to be nothing but if it’s something, there’s a possibility of saving of life. And be mindful of ‘wolves in sheep’s clothing.’ Some of the worst predators are those who you would least expect.”

Be vigilant, keep tabs on your kids, and have serious conversations about what constitutes healthy relationships are other suggestions.

“Finally, to make a larger impact, partner with us,” Chambers said. “Become members of the White Dove Society. This is a group of interfaith congregations who believe this issue will only be solved with community collaboration.” To schedule a presentation by Chambers or for more information on the White Dove Society, contact CVFF’s main office in Waverly, 319-352-1108, or Chamber’s Cedar Rapids office, 319-826-2075, extension 300. The group also has a 24-hour crisis line: 1-800-410-7233,

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