Most Iowans don't think human trafficking is an issue that affects them. Little do they know it happens here, every day, in their own backyards. You may be wondering what the term "human trafficking" means, put simply it's the exploitation of human beings. More specifically human trafficking is coercing a person to preform labor, services, or sex acts. It's an issue that a group of high school students in Ankeny have decided to shine a light on. Teens Against Human Trafficking (TAHT) is a student lead non-profit organization combating human trafficking and raising public awareness of the issue. Lexi O'Connor, Founder of TAHT, is a 17 year old student who first heard about human trafficking two years ago, and decided it was an issue she had to address. TAHT has held several successful fundraisers and sold TAHT apparel to help kick start their cause. The benefits helped fund a community forum called "A Generation Rising" on April 30th at Ankeny High School.
What you need to know about human trafficking
- The average age of entering forced prostitution is 13 years old.
- There are an estimated 27 million victims world wide.
- Human trafficking is the second largest crime, after drug trafficking.
- Human trafficking is an Iowa issue.
Lexi opened the forum on April 30th, with the numbing story that first turned her onto the issue.
"What really affected me was when a woman from the audience stood up and shared a story. 12 little girls were discovered in the back of a van because a police officer had noticed leaking fluid coming from the van." O'Connor says. "He sent up to the driver to offer him assistance, but the driver said no and tried to leave. The police officer asked to look in the back of the van, and discovered 12 little girls in there, all victims of sex trafficking. The fluid that was leaking out of the van was their urine. The gas station was a Casey's in Ames, Iowa. I was appalled to know it was happening in my state, and I knew I had to do something."
Men usually approach vulnerable looking girls and offer them a modeling job. Typically they even have a business card and website, this is more than enough to fool most 13 year old girls. Once she arrives at her first "shoot" she isn't allowed to leave. Often within hours she's taken across the county and sold into forced prostitution. Tina Frundy, a survivor of child sex trafficking and Founder of Courtney's House, explains how girls are kept in "the life." Through physical and psychological control girls are forced to stay or too afraid to leave. The last speaker was a 22 year old girl named Brittany. An Iowa victim who was taken from a Cedar Rapids grocery store and trafficked to Chicago within 18 hours of her abduction. Brittany bravely told the story of her abduction and months of forced prostitution, at only 14 years old. She was rescued from her trafficker through a sting operation and now educates the public about trafficking in Iowa. Read her story here.
Iowa is taking a whole new stance on human trafficking. Mike Feriack, Senior Criminal Investigator with the Iowa Department of Justice is the Director of the newly founded Human Trafficking Enforcement and Prosecution Initiative. Mike explains that law enforcement is putting pressure on traffickers like never before. "We want to make Iowa such a hostile place, that traffickers would rather go around than drive through." Feriack says at the public forum.