116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
The reports of human trafficking are increasing in Iowa, as new training programs and laws kick in to raise awareness of the issue.
Human trafficking is the recruitment and transport of people through force, fraud or deception, with the aim of exploiting them for profit, according to the United Nations. Traffickers often use violence or fake promises of jobs or education to trick and coerce victims.
The pandemic was likely a factor in increasing human trafficking around the world and in Iowa, according to George Belitsos, the chair of the nonprofit Iowa Network Against Human Trafficking.
“There are a lot more vulnerable people, a lot more kids who were at home during COVID alone or on the internet,” Belitsos said. “Most of the ‘grooming’ that is done by these traffickers is online.
“It’s not just the youth that are more vulnerable,“ he added. ”Because of the downturn in the economy worldwide there are more people without jobs. People who already have emotional problems and are isolated or have drug problems, they have become much more vulnerable.”
Number of cases
That said, cases of human trafficking are difficult to track, and it’s hard to say whether an increase in reports is the result of more trafficking or more awareness and reporting of trafficking. Belitsos thinks it’s a little bit of both.
The Network Against Human Trafficking monitors human trafficking in Iowa by collecting data from state agencies and local law enforcement.
In 2021, 230 incidents of child sex trafficking were reported to the Iowa Department of Human Services, with 22 of the reports substantiated. In 2020, 107 reports were received, with 13 cases substantiated.
Iowa’s Victim Services Programs served 642 sex trafficking victims in 2021, up from 558 victims in 2020. The number of labor (job) trafficking victims dropped from 158 in 2020 to 145 in 2021.
The Iowa Family Crisis Center Hotline took 297 calls related to sex trafficking in 2021, up from 204 in 2020. The hotline took 50 labor trafficking calls in 2021, down from 54 in 2020.
New law, program
Belitsos said new laws and other changes in Iowa are creating more awareness of trafficking, which may lead to more reporting.
“I think a lot of the numbers are saying that we are more aware. People are paying attention. People are reporting. Law enforcement now knows what to do,” Belitsos said.
The Iowa Legislature in 2021 passed House File 452 that made it easier for law enforcement officials to investigate claims of prostitution and sex trafficking in massage parlors.
And the Iowa Secretary of State’s Office created the Iowa Businesses Against Trafficking program, which provides employee training and allows businesses to register and be identified as opposed to human trafficking.
“It’s really the first (program) of its kind in the nation,” Belitsos said. “We’re really proud of that. And I really commend the Secretary of State (Paul Pate) for taking this on, and he’s really been going throughout the state promoting this program.”
At least 500 Iowa businesses have joined the program this year.
Iowa lawmakers also authorized a training program for the employees of hotels, motels and other places of lodging, like Airbnbs, to spot human trafficking.
Lodging locations where all employees have completed the training are certified by the state. A hotel that isn’t certified cannot receive any government funds.
That means government employees, including educators, can only stay in certified lodging when traveling for work or organizing conferences. A map showing certified locations can be found at the Iowa Office to Combat Human Trafficking website.
Since the program was launched, 17,000 hotel employees have been trained and more than 600 hotels and motels have been certified, Belitsos said.
The training program, which began in January, was created by the Iowa Department of Public Safety and the Network Against Human Trafficking.
It includes a 30-minute video about human trafficking, which teaches employees signs to look for and what to do if they suspect human trafficking is going on in their hotel. Employees then take a test on the concepts taught in the training.
Indicators of trafficking include customers reluctant to provide personal information when registering; one person reserving multiple rooms; anyone who shows signs of abuse or who appears fearful or not taken care of; young people made up to look older; and minors taking on adult roles like paying bills.
The Iowa Office to Combat Human Trafficking, which is a part of the Department of Public Safety, oversees the training and certifying the lodging places that complete it.
“The big problem with human trafficking is it’s such an underreported crime,” said Ray Fiedler, the coordinator for the Iowa Office to Combat Human Trafficking.
“People don’t necessarily know what they’re looking at, so they don’t necessarily take that next step. So, what we’re trying to do is increase that awareness, ... make sure that the hotel industry is aware.”
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