By Dan Holtmeyer
Monday, March 5, 2012 | Daily Nebraskan
He told this story in a Nebraska Legislature Judiciary Committee hearing last December, a meeting called by Sen. Amanda McGill to give the members a crash course in human trafficking, the global trade of exploited people.
In a later interview, Riskowski said a man had picked the young woman up with promises of work in the career of her dreams: music. The man had another job in mind for her and threatened to treat her mother the same way if she talked. Both tactics are reported by human trafficking victims around the world.
The girl has since been rescued and moved out of state. But she also said she wasn’t alone, Riskowski said.
“She claims there are six other girls being held by this gentleman in Lincoln,” he told the committee.
The girl’s story illustrates one common trend for sex trafficking: It’s increasingly online.
“Frankly, the Internet has taken over the business,” Tom Casady, Lincoln’s public safety director and former police chief, told the Judiciary Committee in the same hearing. “I think we’ve barely scratched the surface with that.”
Accordingly, much of Lincoln police’s undercover work in this area has been done online, according to an interview with a Lincoln police officer last November. She worked undercover while seeking out prostitution, either by contacting those who advertise sexual services or by creating fake ads. She will therefore remain unnamed.
Calls would soon come in whenever she did the latter, the officer said, including one from a man who specifically asked if she had a daughter who’d come along.
“Unfortunately, I never got to meet him,” she said — he hung up. The officer was sure the man called others as well.
Escort services, strip clubs, sensual massage, even cleaning service ads can hint at sex on the side, the officer said, through the use of what she called “code language” and innuendo.
Escort services in particular are more likely to move their workers from city to city, she said, edging uncomfortably close to trafficking.
A quick check of backpage.com, a sort of Craigslist rival, is enough to confirm that. ”Cassy at your service! Here for the holidays,” read one advertisement at the end of last year on the page for “escorts” in Lincoln. “Just arrived from Cali,” called out another.
None explicitly mentioned sex, but everyone interviewed agreed they didn’t have to.
“Escort services are fronts for erotic dancers, lap dancers, erotic massages and prostitution,” Casady told the Judiciary Committee. They become fronts of human trafficking when force, fraud or coercion enter the mix.
Movement of sex workers into town likely shows a seasonal pattern. The College World Series, for example, brings its own surge of sex work from Chicago and other cities, according to Anna Brewer, head of the Omaha FBI’s Innocence Lost Task Force against child sex trafficking. Reports from around the world indicate a larger draw to events like soccer’s World Cup. The LPD officer said the force hadn’t looked into Husker football having a similar effect.
The Streets’ Secrets
The young woman found by Riskowski was fortunate in one respect: She had a home. Several experts and advocacy groups point to homelessness as a major factor in trafficking, both into and within the U.S.
The Lincoln Public School system includes about 100 homeless kids, said Tom Barber, executive director of People’s City Mission, Lincoln’s primary homeless shelter. By working to get those kids off the street, Barber said, he’s also drying up a potential supply of trafficking victims.
“As you get to know the streets, sometimes the streets share with you what’s happening,” Barber said. “If you were a human trafficker and you were recruiting, where would you go?” he asked.
Not Asia, he answered, but down the street. Domestic abuse, he said, is the most common cause of homelessness in Lincoln.
The female police officer, who remains unnamed because of her undercover work, said she’d had undercover training in Kansas City and in Las Vegas, where some officers had discovered a high school sex ring — students sold by students.
“I guarantee that the high schools here have that going on,” the officer said.
If it begins fairly early in life, victims can also get stuck in a rut.
“The only thing she’s good for is providing sex for someone,” said Bobbie Carter, a counselor coordinator with short gray hair at St. Monica’s, a behavioral health treatment and home near 70th and O streets.
The clinic’s clients are women and tend to come from lower socioeconomic levels and legal trouble, including a background in prostitution.
“I don’t put much (stock) in it,” Carter said in an interview in her office, referring to the argument that prostitution was victimless and willing. When she heard the average entry age is 13, Carter nodded her head in agreement and said, “Yeah, that’d probably be about right.”
“No one’s come in and said, ‘I’m a victim of human trafficking,” she said, but many have traded in sex to feed an addiction or simply survive. Many refer to it as recent instead of ongoing, or call their john or pimp a boyfriend.
From the few who venture into their past, Carter has heard about domestic abuse, family members acting as pimps, “horrendous sex abuse” and a small sex ring. She’s encountered them all, Carter said.
She and other experts interviewed agreed. Victims can be anyone, 18 to 50s, white, black, Hispanic, Asian and Native American, though some news reports indicate Native Americans have a more pervasive trafficking problem in the Midwest.
“They got positive — what they thought was positive — attention,” Carter said.
Emotional and economic dependency between trafficker and victim is a control tactic commonly reported by those who study trafficking around the world.
Along with drug problems are psychological problems. Post-traumatic stress disorder and depression almost always came up in various interviews as consequences of prostitution.
Both bring suicide into the picture as well.
‘We want to be part of the change’
Energy appears to be growing among Nebraskan lawmakers to do something about this problem. The Judiciary Committee hearing, which included local law enforcement and experts, was meant to explore possible ideas to address it. Sen. Amanda McGill of Lincoln, a member of the committee, sponsored the hearing and said in an interview women’s safety was an issue “near and dear” to her.
Nebraska was recently given a failing grade by Shared Hope International, a trafficking victim advocacy group based in Washington state, for its laws covering the problem. The Polaris Project, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, has made Nebraska a priority state for this year.
McGill recently introduced two bills to change that. She said one of them, LB 1145, is based on guidelines from the Polaris Project that stress a coordinated, comprehensive community response to trafficking and protection and services for victims.
Along those lines, LB 1145 would include training for law enforcement on how to deal with prostituted women, posting information on the national human trafficking hotline at highway stops and more options for women convicted of prostitution. The bill also provides for a commission to study the issue within the state.
The Judiciary Committee has made LB 1145 its priority bill for the session, increasing the odds of its passing.
“We are creating a tremendous amount of momentum,” Riskowski said late last year. “I’m very hopeful we’ll begin to see things move forward in our state.”
Nebraska University Students Against Modern-Day Slavery, with a chapter at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is meeting with McGill Tuesday afternoon to discuss the legislation.
Sriyani Tidball, an advertising professor who supervises NUSAMS, said Monday that the Polaris Project is also holding a meeting with McGill and other local activists and experts next week.
“Everybody’s talking about it,” Tidball said, noting heightened interest among students even beyond her college. “There’s kind of a buzz going. People are saying we want to be part of the change.”
Human Trafficking Statistics and Information
In the average year:
800,000 people are trafficked across international borders (as of 2007)
Between 14,000 and 17,000 are trafficked in or out of the United States
80 percent are women or girls
$32 billion yearly profits worldwide
Sources: Polaris Project, FBI
Sex Trafficking Victims in Lincoln
Race: White, Black, Hispanic, Asian and Native American
Why sex work: Can include poverty, drug addiction, domestic or other abuse, homelessness, fraud or coercion or choice
Where they are: Largely online, though street prostitution still exists
Sources: Compiled from interviews with local law enforcement, mental health and nonprofit personnel
Sex Trafficking Customers in Lincoln
Race: Likely all races
Age: Wider range than the victims, from 70s or 80s to minors
Occupation: No pattern. Highest demand is during the workday.
Family life: Frequently married
Why: Typically lack concern for the women.
Sources: Compiled from interviews with law enforcement, mental health and nonprofit personnel