It is easy to dismiss it as a “not-in-my-backyard”-kind of problem; a seamy issue rampant in places like Algeria, Russia and Thailand. But Omaha, Lincoln and Grand Island? Yes, says the Women’s Fund of Omaha, we have a significant sex trafficking problem here too.
“This no longer looks like ‘street walking.’ Present day sex trafficking looks more like a young teen going to a hotel room after school where he or she is bought and sold for sex multiple times. The next day, it starts all over again,” says Meghan Malik, trafficking project manager for the Women’s Fund of Omaha.
With data to back it up, the nonprofit says Nebraska is snared in a regional trafficking network largely defined by Interstate 80 and Interstate 29.
“Not only is the commercial sex industry deeply embedded in Omaha, Lincoln, Grand Island, North Platte and Scottsbluff, it extends out from these centers, affecting nearly every corner of the state, including rural areas,” Malik explains.
To gauge the scope of sex trafficking across Nebraska and identify effective policy solutions, the Human Trafficking Initiative (HTI), supported by the Women’s Fund of Omaha and funded by The Sherwood Foundation, conducted focused research through Creighton University’s Heider College of Business.
“From that HTI research, we know that 900 individuals are purchased for sex every month, often multiple times, in Nebraska. Based on this number, 70 to 75 percent show some sign of being underage or controlled by a third party – both indicators of trafficking,” Malik says.
The Women’s Fund says it is committed to a comprehensive approach to ending sex trafficking, including strengthening survivor leadership, creating cross-sector coalitions, increasing education and awareness, enhancing service provider capacity, and changing policies and practices.
During the most recent legislative session, the Women’s Fund worked with State Senator Patty Pansing Brooks to introduce LB 289, a measure that increases penalties for trafficking and solicitation. It also increases protections for trafficked individuals with a particular focus on minors. The bill passed 48-0.
In addition, the Women’s Fund is raising awareness of sex trafficking through a series of campaigns targeting the College World Series, the Berkshire Hathaway Annual Shareholders Meeting and other events that bring large numbers of people into Omaha.
“By making statistics and information available to the general public, we are bringing this issue out of the darkness,” Malik says. “We want community members to be aware.”
In July 2016, the Women’s Fund released “Nothing About Us Without Us,” a research report focused on the insights of survivors of sex trafficking in Nebraska. The research shows that preventing, identifying and serving survivors of sex trafficking – and addressing demand – requires a multi-system, coordinated and collaborative approach.
An active member in the Coalition on Human Trafficking, the Women’s Fund also partners with and plays a key leadership role in the Nebraska Human Trafficking Task Force led by the attorney general and Salvation Army. In the past year, the Women’s Fund and partners have trained more than 7,000 people across the state, including social service providers and law enforcement, to recognize and combat sex trafficking. It has also funded Coalition on Human Trafficking hotel/motel training at more than 80 lodging locations in the Greater Omaha and Lincoln metro areas.
“Trafficked individuals are rarely locked away but rather held captive in plain view,” Malik says.
She urges everyone to be aware of the signs that someone is being purchased for sex against their will. Individuals who are trafficked may not be in possession of their own identification or travel documents and may not be free to move around independently or socialize. They may have few personal possessions, unusual tattoos or branding and may not speak on their own behalf.
“If you see something, say something,” Malik advises. “Call the National Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-3737-888. In an emergency situation, always call 911.”
More information about local resources and how to “Realize, Recognize and Respond” to sex trafficking is available on the Coalition on Human Trafficking’s website at www.NoTrafficking.org.