By Gretchen Teske, The JOURNAL
Human trafficking is the fastest growing crime in the United States and the American Association of University Women (AAUW) wanted to bring awareness to Washington.
On Tuesday, Sept. 11, a small crowd gathered on the second floor of the library to discuss human trafficking, raise awareness and become informed on the issue. The group hosted Iowa State Sen. Kevin Kinney (D-Oxford), a former investigator in both Johnson County and the US Attorney General?s Office. During his 13-year career, Kinney has worked 14 human trafficking cases, all in rural Iowa.
According to Kinney, in its simplest form, human trafficking is a modern form of slavery where victims are exploited for commercial sex or labor purposes, treating with force and coerced into cooperation. Of the 14 cases he has worked, 13 of them involved females, both juvenile and adult. The one case that involved men was a labor trafficking ring. After drug dealing, it is the second largest crime in the United States.
According to Kinney, victims are often coerced or fraudulently brought into the situation through threat of violence against themselves of their family. Victims are taught to fear police and trust only their abductor. Human trafficking can happen anywhere at any time, but often times affects young women. Early in his career, Kinney assisted rescuing a young girl from Iowa City. Kinney had known the girl since she was a child and even had gone to school with her parents. ?That?s what really flipped the switch to me and (I) said somebody?s got to do something,? he said.
During the event, Kinney discussed the difference between human trafficking and smuggling. Smuggling is the transportation across a boundary and considered a crime against the state. Trafficking is the ongoing exploitation of the victim and does not have to involve crossing a boundary but is considered a crime against the victim. Between 800,000 and 900,000 victims cross borders internationally, with 18,000-20,000 of those being in the United States.
Kinney says the best way to help is to simply pay attention to surroundings. ?I always tell people if you have a gut feeling something isn?t right, tell somebody,? he said. He told the crowd that local law enforcement are often the first to know about the crime. They go through training to look beneath the surface for signs such as abuse, deplorable working conditions, restriction of movement and one person being insistent on providing all information, which is one of the biggest indicators of abuse.
Once the victims are found, the process is far from over. He said most victims do not realize they are victims and are too afraid to speak because they have been threatened or their families have been threatened. Kinney said they are trained to be afraid of police and are fearful to provide them any information because of the brainwashing they have gone through. The interview process is often long and grueling, with the victims sometimes ending up in jail. He said that by putting them in jail, they are able to stay calm and feel safe and away from their abductor. After spending an evening in jail they are often ready to talk because the fear of the police that has been instilled in them has started to fade away.
Kinney has worked cases in Washington County, the most notable being in Wellman and involving a 12-year-old girl in 2005. The ring was eventually caught and the leader in federal prison for 40 years. Not all cases end in life convictions, Kinney said. Only those who refuse to take responsibility for their actions are often given harsher sentences. This defendant pleaded guilty and took responsibility for his actions. A man involved in a different case was trying to set up another human trafficking ring in Florida while in the Iowa County Jail. The judge found out and sentenced him to life in prison for his refusal to take responsibility.
Washington County Sheriff?s Department Investigator Sergeant Chad Ellis tried to put the group at ease and explained that the sheriff?s department is constantly monitoring and in communications with other police departments across the U.S. He said he has helped with cases as far away as Louisiana and Maine. Ellis admitted the biggest issue the department faces is keeping up with the media and ways traffickers sell and exploit their victims but they are working constantly to monitor the area and keep citizens safe. ?We just try to work them as well as we can,? he said. ?We try to use every resource we can because it?s knowing your resources that?s important.?
Those who suspect any kind of foul play are encouraged to contact their local police departments. All officers are trained to handle any potential situation that may arise.