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The Secret Wounds of Sex Trafficking Survivors

 The Kim Foundation had the opportunity to attend August’s Mary C. Lopez Lunch and Learn, sponsored by the Women’s Leadership Council, in partnership with the Women’s Fund of Omaha. The luncheon and panel discussion aimed to spark a community dialogue surrounding the very real and widespread issue of sex trafficking.

People often convince themselves that something so volatile and corrupt could only happen in large urban cities and countries overseas. However, that’s simply not the case. It happens everywhere, including urban and rural Nebraska. According to recent a research study completed by Creighton University, there is an estimated 1,846 people currently “for sale” in the Omaha area alone. This does not include the suburbs or rural communities outside of Omaha.

These women, men, and children are often brought into trafficking by force, fraud, exploitation, coercion, or psychological manipulation. They are forced into commercial sex acts against their own free-will and are almost always emotionally and physically abused. The average age of female victims lured into trafficking is between 12 to 16 years old, and nearly half of the girls had been in either foster care or living in a group home (3). Technology has aided perpetrators in the buying and selling of their victims, using social media to pry on victims and web sites to post “sale” ads. The general ignorance surrounding human trafficking has also helped these criminals carry on their business without being noticed.

The panelists at the Women’s Leadership Council event included Anna Brewer, a former FBI Special Agent and Women’s Fund of Omaha Sex Trafficking Training Consultant; Rachel Pointer, trafficking survivor and Movement Liaison at Free the People Movement; Dr. Shireen Rajaram, Associate Professor at the University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Public Health; and Alicia Webber, Human Trafficking Task Force Coordinator/Project Manager, and Salvation Army’s Fight to End Trafficking Program. The panel discussion was led by Women’s Fund of Omaha’s Trafficking Response Coordinator, Meghan Malik.

The panel introduced a qualitative research study conducted by Dr. Rajaram and Sryani Tidball from the College of Journalism and Mass Communication at The University of Nebraska in Lincoln, and was funded through the Women’s Fund of Omaha. The study is entitled Nebraska Sex Trafficking Survivors Speak. The purpose of the study was to document the perspectives of 22 local female adult sex trafficking survivors about the “3Ps” paradigm. This paradigm’s goal is to identify strategies to prevent sex trafficking, provide protection and support for survivors, and improve prosecution of the perpetrators to reduce the demand for sex trafficking (4). The inclusion of the 22 local survivors’ voices is the first report of its kind completed in the state of Nebraska.

“The report that we did shows there is still a great deal more that we need to know and that we really need to get this out from being a hidden crime,” said Malik, during an interview with KETV.

Over the past year, local law enforcement has been working undercover as customers to catch perpetrators and rescue victims. Over the last six months, nine juveniles have been rescued. Many of these teens are runaways who got caught up in an abusive relationship. Earlier this month, two 19 year olds were arrested in Bellevue for felony human trafficking of a teenage girl (5).

When a survivor is rescued or escapes “the life,” they will have several immediate needs including safe housing specifically for trafficking survivors, substance abuse treatment, and trauma focused counseling. According to a study from the Department of Health and Human Services Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, trauma exposure occurs along a continuum of complexity, from the less complex single, adult-onset incident such as a car accident, to the repeated and intrusive trauma frequently of a personal nature. These repeated traumatic experiences often include a significant amount of stigma or shame and where an individual may be more vulnerable, due to a variety of factors. Sex trafficking survivors would be on this far end of this continuum (1). Unfortunately, because there is still such a lack of understanding that the majority of women working as prostitutes, are actually victims and not criminals, there is a lot of stigma. This stigma makes it even more difficult for these survivors to reach out for help for help and treatment.

Due to the high level of trauma the trafficking survivor can experience during their captivity, he or she may suffer from anxiety, panic disorder, major depression, substance abuse, eating disorders, and can even experience a combination of these. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is also common. For those that struggle with PTSD, the characterizing symptoms include intrusive re-experiencing of the trauma such as flashbacks, nightmares, intrusive thoughts, avoidance or numbing of trauma-related, or trauma-triggering, stimuli, such as avoiding certain places, people, and situations, hyper arousal, or heightened startle response, and inability to concentrate. If left untreated, PTSD is usually chronic and debilitating (1). Working with a therapist or peer specialist who has experience with trauma is critical.

Several treatment approaches have been developed for complex trauma specific to juveniles using group therapy to address skills development, affect regulation, interpersonal connections and competence, and resiliency building. These interventions all emphasize the relationship between symptoms and the traumatic experience, the development of concrete coping skills in managing symptoms, and the use of peer support groups to increase normalization, build healthy interpersonal relationship skills, and establish social supports (1). In addition to housing and ongoing mental healthcare, survivors are often in need of medical care, education, job and life skill training, and sometimes parenting classes.

It is absolutely critical that our state continues to improve prevention and prosecution efforts, in addition to providing short-term and long-term services for survivors. In order to prevent trafficking, we need to educate our law enforcement agencies, prosecutors, hotel staff, airport personnel, truck stop staff, social workers, medical professionals, and school personnel on what to watch for. The Set Me Free Project provides free training for youth and adults, parents, and industry professionals. Cameron Bagder, Project Development Coordinator with the Set Me Free Project, shared with me some red flags to watch for.

Signs of a possible trafficker:

  • Someone who becomes jealous easily, seems controlling, or exhibits violent behavior.
  • The person (boyfriend/girlfriend/mentor) is significantly older than the possible victim.
  • They make promises that are too good to be true.
  • They encourage you or the potential victim to engage in illegal activities to achieve goals.
  • They suggest they know how to make money or that they can help you, or the potential victim, make a lot of money.
  • They often buy expensive gifts and/or flash their money.
  • They are very private about his or her profession, family life, personal life, etc.
  • They get pushy or demanding about sex.
  • They try to persuade you or the potential victim to take suggestive photos, model, or dance for money.
  • They make you or the potential victim feel responsible about financial matters.

Watch for these red flags in a friend or loved one:

  • They have excess cash.
  • They have hotel room keys.
  • Watch for abrupt changes in habits, attitudes, speech, and apparel.
  • They tell unusual and inconstant stories.
  • Presence of an older “friend” or boy/girlfriend.
  • Frequent and unusual absences from work or school.

Watch for these red flags in a stranger:

  • They appear disoriented, fearful, agitated, or hyper submissive.
  • They make little to no eye contact.
  • They are not allowed to communicate.
  • They don’t have an ID or money (sometimes if they are with the trafficker, they keep hold of those items for them).

If you are concerned about someone being a potential victim of human trafficking, please contact the National Human Trafficking Resource Center at (888)373-7888 to speak with a specialist 24/7. If you or someone you love is in immediate danger, call 911.



Finding Help:

Set Me Free Project:

Restoration House- Rejuvenating Women:

Restored Hope:

Carole’s House of Hope:

Women’s Center for Advancement:

National Human Trafficking Resource Center

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Jill Hamilton, Project Coordinator, The Kim Foundation

Jill Hamilton has been the Project Coordinator at The Kim Foundation since 2014. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and public relations from The University of Nebraska at Omaha in 2009. Since working at the foundation, she has become an active member of the Nebraska State Suicide Prevention Coalition, Nebraska LOSS Advisory Committee, The Omaha Metro Hoarding Taskforce, The Early Childhood Mental Health Coalition, Nebraska State Conference Planning Committee, is Chair of the Nebraska LOSS Teams Conference Planning Committee, and serves as the Outreach Coordinator for the Metro Area LOSS Team.