In Iowa, human trafficking laws lacking

Iowa's penalty for sex with enslaved prostitute pale when compared to drug charges

Steve Pope/Freelance

Senator Bob Dvorsky, D-Coralville, seen here in the Senate Chambers in 2012, believes it is import
Steve Pope/Freelance Senator Bob Dvorsky, D-Coralville, seen here in the Senate Chambers in 2012, believes it is important not to criminalize minors who are not prostitutes.
/ advertises escort services from women with descriptions such as “Full of energy, fun & seduction!” or “Mixed EXOTIC PlayGirl Visiting Limited Time.” On one Friday the website listed 43 of these ads for the Des Moines area.

What many may not realize is that escort services often are fronts for human trafficking, a crime reported in Iowa with increasing frequency — a growth rate on pace to reach just over 71 percent between 2011 and 2013, according to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center’s hotline.

“The Internet has just empowered traffickers,” said Teresa Downing-Matibag, director of the Network Against Human Trafficking in Ames. “It’s given them a legal venue to traffic.”

In response to this growing crime, state legislators crafted a new bill strengthening penalties for both prostitution and human trafficking offenses. It passed both the Senate and House and was headed for Gov. Terry Branstad’s office.

Branstad was reserving judgment until examining the bill in its final form, his spokesman Jimmy Centers said on April 15.

“I think we’re starting to wake up to realize it is a lot worse than what we imagined,” Rep. Greg Heartsill, R-Chariton, said. “It breaks the heart of anyone who studies this issue.”

Yet in Iowa, the law considers human trafficking less serious than drug cases. Many drug charges are class B felonies bringing up to 25 years imprisonment. In contrast, most trafficking charges carry five-year maximums as class D felonies.

If the victim is a minor, the offense brings a 10-year maximum as a class C felony.

“The consequences of having drugs on you are greater than the consequences of selling a human being. That’s wrong,” said Ruth Buckels, the adoptive mother of a former human trafficking victim who lives in the Ames area.

A growing industry

According to the Washington, D.C.-based Polaris Project, an organization devoted to fighting human trafficking and pushing for stronger state and federal laws, trafficking is a $32 billion industry — and it’s growing.

The National Human Trafficking Resource Center provides a hotline for anyone to call to report trafficking. In 2011, it received 63 calls from Iowa.

In 2012, that number increased to 82 calls. In 2013, it received 54 calls from January to June alone.

The calls received most likely only represent a small percentage of the actual trafficking taking place.

“Very little human trafficking is reported at this point,” said Cathy O’Keeffe, executive director of Braking Traffik, a Quad Cities-based organization dedicated to fighting sex trafficking in Iowa and Illinois.

Without being reported, human trafficking victims have almost no way of escaping. Brittany Phillips, a human trafficking survivor from Iowa found in Chicago in 2006 at age 14, said many girls try to run but are found and hurt by their pimps, so they stop trying.

Phillips herself was rescued during an undercover raid on her captors, but she stressed that many girls are not so lucky.

“It’s better to report it and it be nothing than to not report it and it have been someone in danger,” said Phillips, now 22 and living in the Ames area.

A common misconception about human trafficking is that it only involves foreigners brought into the United States, or that most human trafficking victims are kidnapped, but that this is not always the case. Phillips was trafficked as a runaway after being offered what she thought was a modeling job.

Many traffickers target vulnerable teens and first build a relationship with them. In some cases, parents even traffic their own children to pay the bills.

If signed into law, Iowa’s bill would allow county attorneys to refer a minor arrested for prostitution to the state Department of Human Services as a child in need of assistance, rather than filing a petition alleging that the minor has committed a delinquent act.

The bill also would expunge prostitution convictions from minors after two years of good behavior with no other convictions, other than traffic convictions or simple misdemeanors.

Sen. Bob Dvorsky, D-Coralville, who sponsored the bill, said it was important not to criminalize minors who are not prostitutes but, instead, are victims forced into sexual acts against their will.

O’Keeffe said law enforcement, hospital staff, schools and social service providers are starting to get the training to more readily identify human trafficking, but there is still a long way to go.

Trafficking in Iowa is not a new topic. The Gazette carried a 14-part series on trafficking in Iowa in 2008. “The most important thing for people to understand is that human trafficking happens in Iowa,” O’Keeffe said. “It includes small communities. It’s not just a big city crime or a crime that happens in other parts of the United States.”


Human trafficking is a crime that occurs whenever an individual is exploited for labor or sex through force, fraud, deception, or coercion, except if the victim is under 18. Then coercion does not need to take place.

The Network Against Human Trafficking’s Downing-Matibag said 16- and 17-year-olds in prostitution sometimes will be waived out of juvenile court into adult court to be tried for prostitution and receive a permanent criminal record. Other times they stay in juvenile and may have to serve probation.

“They’re essentially criminalized,” Downing-Matibag said. “When they go out and get jobs, it’s hard for them to get employment, and they don’t get the services they need.”

Brittany Phillips’s case was handled in Chicago, where she was found, in a manner similar to the new bill, and she said she thinks it is a good way to deal with the situation. Phillips was arrested for prostitution but eventually her charges were dropped.

“I was told that if I testified that I wouldn’t be charged, and I think that is something that should be implemented here in Iowa,” Phillips said.

Phillips did not end up testifying because of safety concerns. She said more options should exist for victims to testify, such as over the phone, so they can receive justice for what has been done to them without fearing for their safety.

“It’s better to get the girl out of the situation and get the help she needs instead of arresting her and charging her for something she had to do against her will,” Phillips said. “They aren’t going to get any help sitting in jail or being fined and let go. They are just going to go back to it when they get out or released.

“At least if you turn them over to DHS they will have someone attempting to give them the counseling and love they need.”

Buckels, Phillips’s adoptive mother, said arresting victims is the only way to get them out of the situation, and the charges may need to be pending to hold victims in a safe environment.

Buckels said she believes county attorneys will recognize human trafficking and not criminalize minors. However, she said, they will need more education to understand victims’ needs and what human trafficking is.

A common problem is that victims do not see any other way of life for themselves.

“If they’ve never been taught their strengths, they’re not going to stay out of the industry because they don’t know how to make a living,” Buckels said.

Mike Ferjak, director of the Department of Justice’s human trafficking squad, said human trafficking victims often resist law enforcement because they do not identify themselves as victims.

In many cases, victims develop a traumatic bond with their traffickers, which happens when a person cannot fight or run, so they are forced to develop a relationship with their captor.

“It is very common in our experience at least that the victims have created some type of pseudo-romantic relationship with this person,” Ferjak said. “They believe this is someone that actually cares about them despite the terrible things they make them do.”

This is why many women never make it out of human trafficking, experts who work with the victims said. Plus, if they are charged with prostitution as adults, it is considered an aggravated misdemeanor.

“We have a lot of adult prostitution in our country, and I think that the vast majority of people in prostitution have a history of being trafficked as children,” Downing-Matibag said.

Redefinition and higher fines

Purchasing sex also is an aggravated misdemeanor, but the new bill would make it a Class D felony, resulting in five years in prison and a fine of $750 to $7,500, if the person whose services are purchased is a minor.

In a human trafficking situation, a person who solicits services from a minor knowing they are enslaved would be guilty of a Class C felony, which carries a fine of $1,000 to $10,000 and a 10-year sentence. Soliciting services from an adult victim is a Class D felony.

In addition to these consequences, the new bill adds a $1,000 human trafficking surcharge to be put into a human trafficking victim fund. There was initially some debate over these aspects of the bill because of the general victim fund already in place.

Rep. Heartsill said that, considering the low number of human trafficking cases prosecuted, the surcharge money will not go far.

Downing-Matibag said $1,000 is a minuscule amount when traffickers can make $60,000 t0 $70,000 off one person in a year, but that the surcharge is a good start.

Ruth Buckels said any amount that hits traffickers in the pocketbook is a good thing, but she wants human trafficking charges to be as strong if not stronger than drug charges.

Since Brittany Phillips first shared her story, she and Buckels have been involved in helping raise awareness about human trafficking.

“I don’t like seeing people cry, but when they do you know it’s affecting them and making them think about this stuff,” Phillips said. “Even when you think your story isn’t worth sharing because people aren’t going to care, it really is, and you don’t know if there is someone in the audience that is that 14-year-old girl that I once was and is going through the same thing.”

Phillips has spoken to many groups and has been involved in groups working to strengthen Iowa laws on trafficking. She also helped make a documentary with Cathy O’Keefe of Braking Traffik that tells the stories of three Iowa survivors of sex trafficking.

The documentary is to be shown in middle schools and high schools as part of Braking Traffik’s awareness program, Traffik Jam.

Buckels emphasized the importance of educating all people on what slavery looks like in 2014. Her anger is directed toward those who turn the other way, such as front desk workers in the hotels Phillips was checked into while being trafficked.

“Her pimp would go in and book 10 rooms and put a girl in each room, and nobody turned this in. Nobody called. Nobody said, ‘Uh, I think he’s running a pimping business, and these girls are little. They’re underage,’” said Buckels.

“Nobody spoke up, and that to me is unbelievable.”

While education may help prevent human trafficking, Downing-Matibag stressed that demand is the crux of the issue.

“These traffickers are just smart business people, and they wouldn’t have anything to do if there weren’t men out there wanting to buy sex,” Downing-Matibag said.

“The demand is the source, and the people buying are our neighbors and friends and professionals.”

This story was produced by Iowa Center for Public Affairs, a non-profit, online news website that collaborates with Iowa news organizations to produce explanatory and investigative reporting.

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