George Belitsos spent the last 40 years advocating for homeless youths and families through Youth and Shelter Services in Ames. Now he is focusing specifically on stopping the trafficking of vulnerable Iowans.
Belitsos took over in January as chairman of the Iowa Network Against Human Trafficking and is working to end what he calls “modern day slavery.”
Belitsos said he’s looking to take the network to a role where it can coordinate and advocate for more services and better training for officials, following the opening of positions in state departments to combat human trafficking.
Q: What made you want to get involved with the Iowa Network Against Human Trafficking?
A: “I was the CEO of YSS for 40 years and have been on the board for the network for seven years. I got on there because of my concern that juveniles in the child welfare system, runaways and homeless youth are very vulnerable to falling into trafficking.
“I felt that it was time for me to take more of a leadership role because of my direct service experience.”
Q: Is human trafficking an issue in Iowa?
A: “For years, it was very hard to get any attention in Iowa for this horrendous crime. We’ve really had a breakthrough in the last year. We still have a lot to do.”
Q: What has changed in the state?
A: “We have been pushing state government for several years to upgrade investigation and prosecution services. The result of that was a bill that passed the Legislature to create an office to combat human trafficking in the Department of Public Safety. For the Attorney General, Mike Ferjak was hired to investigate human trafficking.”
Q: What has the network accomplished since it opened in 2005?
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A: “I feel really good about what we’ve accomplished already. (The former executive director of the network) did a lot of work with agencies trying to develop programs. We have a very active board of 15, and we were doing a lot of training. Now we have people statewide. We have had an explosion in community providers to get victims of human trafficking to exit that way of life.”
Q: How is the role of the Iowa Network Against Human Trafficking evolving?
A: “I wanted to reinvent our role from doing training and panels into more advocacy and coordination and having a statewide group that all are working for the same improvements in prosecution and treatment for victims of trafficking. It’s changing the whole intervention, prosecution and investigation. There’s an explosion of new services. Since the state (opened) these two offices and has funded more directive programs ... our main goal is to provide information about services, to advocate for funding in the Legislature and make everything more efficient and well coordinated.”
Q: How can Eastern Iowans get involved in stopping human trafficking?
A: “There is a conference this fall in Cedar Rapids (to be put on in November by Chains Interrupted). There’s a lot of training all across Iowa. You can look on our calendar for training in your area.”
Q: What are your upcoming goals for the Iowa Network Against Human Trafficking?
A: “We want to continue to advocate for funding. We want to expand that funding, especially in the child welfare system. We also have several pieces of legislation we’re going to be backing this year. We are going to be putting a big push on that this year.”
Resources for victims of human trafficking:
— National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline: 1-888-373-7888
— Cedar Valley Friends of the Family: cvfriendsofthefamily.org, (319) 352-1108