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Human trafficking spreading in Nebraska
October 28, 2015 Frank Marquez   

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Courtesy photo: Troy Rask, an independent owner and operator of T&H Trucking in Gering, took this photo at the Sapp Bros. Travel Center in Ogallala on Monday. He says this is as far west as the signs go.

Though not at the level of human trafficking in Omaha and Lincoln, west Nebraska has remained relatively immune to the criminal activity which has become a growing concern among state legislators and the attorney general’s office.

On Oct. 20, the attorney general’s office issued a release that AG Doug Peterson and Stephen Patrick O’Meara, the human trafficking coordinator at the attorney’s office, had announced the Attorney General’s Strategic Plan for combatting human trafficking.

“Today is not about any one of us, but rather, all of us joining together to unite in our efforts to preserve the value and dignity of human life in our state,” Peterson said, at the state capitol press conference.

Since taking office in 2014, Peterson started with a legislative package including a bill to strengthen penalties related to human trafficking. LB 294 was sponsored and prioritized by Senator Jim Scheer of Norfolk, and signed into law by Gov. Pete Ricketts on May 19, 2015.

In giving some insight into a response to the problem Director of Youth Programs at the Community Action Plan of Western Nebraska (CAPWN) in Gering Betsy Vidlak said Nebraska’s reaction stems from the federal government’s Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act, which was signed into law in 2014.

“Nebraska is so conservative, they often fail to respond. The state is a little behind the eight ball on what we’re going to do. States have their own ways to respond. Some of the law is focused around children in foster care,” she said.

For example, neighboring state Colorado has zeroed in on the foster-care-to-prostitution pipeline. Vidlak added, “We may not have that here, but it may be different on the eastern side of the state.”

In March, Congressman Jeff Fortenberry and other state leaders joined Peterson in a roundtable discussion, brainstorming ways to combat trafficking in Nebraska. Following the roundtable, O’Meara, a recently retired assistant U.S. attorney, agreed to commit his experience and expertise toward serving as Nebraska’s human trafficking coordinator.

In one of his first steps, O’Meara applied for a $600,000 federal grant by the Office of Justice Programs from the U.S. Department of Justice. The attorney general’s office received the three-year grant, which began on Oct. 1, 2015.

What truckers see

While the rest of the state wrestles with remedies for activity largely centered in Omaha and Lincoln, members of the trucking industry say that trafficking may be on a much smaller scale in west Nebraska.

“Our area is too small,” said Troy Rask, independent owner and operator of T&H Trucking in Gering, referring to the possibility of human trafficking rearing its ugly head in the Gering and Scottsbluff area. “We don’t have big enough truck stops. Back east, there are lots of signs posted on parking lots, and buildings at some of the major truck stops in Omaha and Lincoln. There are no public signs our end of the state. I’ve seen signs as close as stops in Ogallala,” where Rask passed through on Monday.

Rask, who started his business last December, keeps a Monday-through-Friday schedule, with routes through the Panhandle and parts of Kansas. He, his nephew, and son-in-law drive the three trucks he owns. They carry loads containing grains, road salt for winter, and fertilizer.

When Rask does make stops in Omaha, he often hears the truckers on CBs talking about the issue in terms of the truckers being aware of their surroundings and how the girls are dressed, often in ways to disguise their age. He said Omaha has become one of the central locations for trafficking because it’s one of the biggest stops along the I-80 corridor.

Peggy Robinson, the recently appointed director of safety for Nebraska Transport Company headquartered in Gering, has said although she hasn’t addressed the trafficking issue with NTC truck drivers, they are still aware of it. “Our long haul drivers go in all directions,” she said. “In this area she has seen no evidence of it.”

Robinson, who was a nighttime dispatcher and later an assistant safety director for many years for another trucking company in the Scottsbluff area, added, “But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. In order for it to be tracked and stopped before it starts, we have to rely on the truck drivers to report it.

In this small community, we can keep a pretty good handle on this type of activity.”

A national concern

According to a report by the Daily Nebraskan in November 2012, at a UNL course on human trafficking, lecturer Sriyani Tidball quoted a statistic that in “the U.S. alone, there are between 100,000 to 300,000 children who are victims of the sex trafficking industry.”

By Department of Justice estimates, the pimps make $150,000 to $200,000 per child and the average pimp controls four to half a dozen children. On average, these children are forced to have sex more than 20 times per day.

Lt. Monica Bartling of the Troop E-Scottsbluff Investigative Services Division said, “As far as cases here, I don’t recall anything in the Panhandle. As for warnings, the Nebraska State Patrol is working on ways to get information out to the public on what to look for.”

Bartling works with a group of professionals (among them members of the FBI, Omaha Police Department, the Methodist Hospital, and Department of Health and Human Services) who are working on developing a human trafficking identification tool. The group, which has met on Skype a few times to discuss ideas, is also working on plans to distribute education materials to emergency rooms and jails, places where people gather and who might have questions, and for law enforcement in general.

“These traffickers are probably shipping kids and adults across our state,” Bartling said. “But we live in a state where people don’t want to get involved and people have to. Usually, we find out about these cases by accident. There are cases with us that involve people who aren’t going to say anything about the conditions under which they saw something. It’s about people noticing their surroundings, what the girls and guys are doing when you see them, like if they’re getting into a car with someone, and it doesn’t look right.”

All across the state

According to a Nebraska News Service report, Nebraskans have yet to recognize the magnitude of human trafficking, officials said at an international conference in early October.

“Realize that human trafficking is here,” O’Meara said. “This doesn’t just include Lincoln and Omaha. It’s all across Nebraska, in all its forms.”

O’Meara has since confirmed cases of trafficking in Auburn, Hastings, Grand Island and small towns in Nebraska. He recently confirmed a case in Hills, Iowa.

“Hills, Iowa, has a population of 550,” O’Meara said. “That ought to make you think.”

Human trafficking is defined as the illegal transportation of people, usually for forced labor or sexual exploitation. However, human trafficking also encompasses organ trafficking and child labor, including child soldiers.

“According to many of the individuals familiar with the system that we spoke with, many of these victims run away from their foster care home within the first 24 hours of placement and return to their pimp,” he said.

“Some of our local law enforcement knows what trafficking looks like,” Vidlak said. “We have seen cases among older youth 18-19.”

Among dozens of local cases in the past few years, Vidlak has observed that kids who become victims of trafficking, “are usually out on their own, have no family, and are getting involved in poor relationships. There may be a guy who’s a drug dealer, he uses or shares girls, to get more drugs. It’s a trade – the girls for drugs, typically involving Meth.”

About the need for more awareness and training, Vidlak added, “The activity is well hidden in rural areas, and in our community. It’s in the poorer areas. You are not going to see girls on the street corner.”

O’Meara said coming up with a solution to this problem is no easy task.

Seeking solutions

“Section 16 of the bill was a very contentious part,” O’Meara said.

There was much debate on whether or not temporarily detaining the victims would amount to criminalizing them, O’Meara said.

“The compromise we arrived at was to task the Foster Care Review Office with keeping information on all human trafficking victims who are placed in foster care,” he said. Having the office track this data allows the legislature the opportunity to revisit the issue in the future, he said.

The new law also introduces the concept of “john school,” an educational program buyers of illicit sex have to attend if they’re convicted of solicitation. The program has been used in other states as a way to educate buyers on human trafficking.

O’Meara said educating the public, especially those in law and service industries, is a key component in combating trafficking.

“This is all market-driven,” O’Meara said. “No johns; no sex trafficking.”

At the AGO press conference, O’Meara gave an overview of a 69-page “Report and Recommendations Regarding Establishment of the Nebraska Human Trafficking Task Force.” The task force consists of an advisory group as well as three working groups and three operational components. The working groups include service, law enforcement, and community partner. The task will also provide a statewide response to human trafficking to include support teams.

The attorney general provided the National Human Trafficking Resource Center Hotline information: 888-3737-888. The task force takes confidential calls and provides interpreters 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Photo by Frank Marquez/Gering Citizen: Stops like the Western Travel Terminal in Scottsbluff remain relatively unstained by human traffickers, while truck drivers passing through Omaha and Lincoln are more likely to see such activity.
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