Human trafficking discussion warns, 'It does happen here'

More than half of the victims trafficked into the United States are children

CEDAR RAPIDS — It does happen here.

Human trafficking, described by Johnson County sheriff’s Lt. Kevin Kinney as a form of modern-day slavery, is occurring in Iowa, and local law enforcement and non-governmental agencies are making it a priority to uncover the criminal behavior and fight it.

At a panel discussion about human trafficking at Coe College in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, Kinney and other field experts discussed the proliferation of human trafficking in Iowa, the United States and the world.

Between 800,000 and 900,000 victims are trafficked annually around the world, and between 18,000 and 20,000 are trafficked into the United States every year, according to Kinney. More than half of the victims trafficked into the United States are children.

“It’s hugely underreported,” Kinney said. “And while victims come from all over the world to the United States, a lot of them come from within. There are kids from our towns.”

Kinney mentioned a prostitution sting in Coralville this year that uncovered a 16-year-old girl who was being trafficked into the sex trade by her older sister. Three people who were or had previously been living in Iowa City were arrested just this month on suspicion of trafficking three Iowa City-area girls for sex in Eastern Iowa and then in Chicago.

“We have set up different prostitution stings trying to target young kids being prostituted online, and we’ve had success doing that,” Kinney said. “It’s around, and we know it’s around, and we are trying to combat it as best we can.”

In fact, Kinney said, in every project he’s worked, he has run into some type of human trafficking, whether it involves minors or people over age 18 who are being forced or coerced into the prostitution business.

“It isn’t just kids,” Kinney said.

Jason Semprini, who works with Iowa Legal Aid in Cedar Rapids, provided some explanation for why Iowa is one of the more prominent states for human trafficking, including its interstate network and its connections to Chicago, Minneapolis and Kansas City.

The top reason for Iowa’s problem with human trafficking, according to Semprini, is the notion that “Human trafficking doesn’t happen here.”

Semprini provided some tips for the average resident wanting to help stop human trafficking. Look for the signs, he said, including young girls spending time with older boys or men. Girls who have low self-esteem, avoid eye contact, show signs of abuse and struggle with substance abuse also could be victims, he said.

And Steve Warner, an officer with the high-risk unit for the Sixth Judicial District’s probation and parole division, warned the largely college-aged crowd on Thursday that they are at risk.

“You are the targets,” Warner said. “You have to be diligent. You have to protect each other.”