Sex trafficking in Iowa widespread, experts say

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DES MOINES — Sex trafficking in Iowa isn’t limited to the state’s biggest cities.

That was a central message delivered Friday by a panel of experts on human trafficking during a forum Friday at Des Moines University.

The event was hosted by U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, who in 2015 helped pass federal legislation that targeted human traffickers.

“Sex trafficking of our nation’s children and adults is a growing domestic threat,” Grassley said, adding trafficking takes place “in every state in the nation, and even though we don’t like to admit it, even here in Iowa.”

In any given month, Iowa has almost 900 sex workers, according to data presented at the forum by Anna Brewer, a retired FBI agent who specialized in Iowa trafficking cases.

Trafficking is statewide, according to the data, and Sioux City has the highest rate per capita. But trafficking happens in small Iowa towns as well, the experts said.

Stephen O’Meara, Nebraska’s human trafficking coordinator and a former assistant U.S. attorney in Iowa, noted the case of two teen girls who were brought from Milwaukee to Hills, Iowa, population 703.

“We are not even touching the tip of the iceberg (of the trafficking issue),” O’Meara said. “We have to do a lot better.”

The experts shared with the audience — many of whom were medical students at the university — warning signs about people who come into a hospital or other health care center and might be trafficking victims.

O’Meara said almost 9 in 10 sex trafficking victims encounter a health care professional while they still are being trafficked.

Cathy O’Keefe, director of the Quad Cities-based Braking Traffik, said she hopes events such as Friday’s help spread awareness.

“We hope events like this help people understand that human trafficking in all forms does exist in Iowa, and it exists in our communities both big and small,” said O’Keefe, whose group provides myriad forms of assistance to trafficking victims.

She credited Iowa’s state government for responding to human trafficking. The state first passed a human trafficking law in 2006, and O’Keefe said lawmakers have since worked with advocates on updates. Earlier this year, lawmakers and Gov. Terry Branstad approved the creation of a state office designed specifically to address trafficking.

“I think as a state we’re doing a pretty good job. Everyone can always do better, of course,” O’Keefe said. “But from the state level we’re doing a pretty good job at recognizing this crime and trying to address it more fully.” 

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