What’s working, what’s still needed in Nebraska’s fight against human trafficking

Meghan Malik from the Women's Fund of Omaha speaks at the Not on My Watch news conference in Omaha (Photo by Mike Tobias, NET News)
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July 24, 2018 - 6:45am

Nebraska is fighting human trafficking on a lot of fronts. Awareness, law enforcement, legislation, social services. An update on these efforts, and a look at what’s working and what’s still needed.


The event was a June news conference in a downtown Omaha hotel announcing a new Women’s Fund of Omaha sex trafficking awareness effort called “Not On My Watch.” “This is important to help remind people,” State Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln said at the news conference. “People still say to me, ‘Do you think there's really trafficking going on in Nebraska?’ And clearly it's happening, we know that.”

Learn more about sex trafficking in Nebraska and the stories of survivors in NET's "Sold for Sex" project, which includes two television documentaries.

 


Molly, an Omaha-area sex trafficking survivor. (All photos by Mike Tobias, NET News)

"Why didn't you notice?"

Here are more of Molly's comments from the Not on My Watch news conference. "Support is crucial. I have been through a lot for a very long time, and for a very long time, I didn't know that there was another way to survive. I've been raped, I've been strangled, I've been physically and mentally abused, but it didn't end there. My existence here today is proof that there is another way to survive, but not really just survive, there's another way to truly thrive. Support is available, and I want everyone to know that. There are other survivors who can support you, who understand you, who can help you heal, and who feel the exact same shame that you feel and that you carry every day from walking in this lifestyle. There's a community who cares about you. A common, and misguided, and extremely harmful question that I often get asked is, 'Why didn't you leave?' That's not the question we should be asking. The question that I have for you all here today is, 'Why didn't you notice?' This collective effort will work to give our community a better understanding of what sex trafficking looks like, and how to report it, so that your answer can be, "I did notice, and you know what? Not on my watch."

 


Glen Parks, Nebraska assistant attorney general and Human Trafficking Task Force coordinator.

 


Rachel Pointer (L) and Teresa Houser (R) from Magdalene Omaha.

 


State Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln speaking at the Not on My Watch news conference.

Timed for the College World Series, which often leads to a spike in sex trafficking, this was an effort to help people learn signs of trafficking, and what to do if they see these.

No one at this event understood the need for this program better than Molly, an Omaha-area trafficking survivor.

“It all starts with awareness,” she said. “Knowing what trafficking looks like is important, but it's also important to know that the commercial sex industry is tied to and exists because of other types of violence against vulnerable human beings. There is no person whose background or demographic excludes them from being exposed to trafficking or other forms of violence.”

With the governor, attorney general and state senators among those on hand, the event also served as an update on Nebraska’s fight against human trafficking and what’s happened since the Attorney General’s Human Trafficking Task Force was launched more than two years ago.

Pansing Brooks has made changing laws related to trafficking a priority.  

“It was quite clear that there was really two paths, or two prongs that really needed to be addressed, the survivors and the incredible trauma that they have and do experience. But also we needed to look at the laws, and the laws were pathetic in this area,” Pansing Brooks said at the news conference.

That’s changed. Now there are stiffer penalties for traffickers and buyers. Another bill helps trafficking survivors by setting aside criminal convictions that came as a result of being trafficked. 

“Those have been really two critical steps,” Malik said in an interview. She’s the Women’s Fund trafficking project manager and has been involved with the task force from the start.

Malik said staying “survivor centered” during police busts and other operations is an important new direction. “All the task force operations now include advocates that go with to ensure that there are individuals to support survivors immediately.

“I think we have to continue to speak out to survivors, and tell survivors they won't be arrested,” Malik added. “That's really, really important for survivors to come out and seek a safe place out of the life. We have to ensure that we are not arresting and treating them like criminals.”

“The presumption from the beginning is that they're a victim,” said Glen Parks, assistant attorney general and Human Trafficking Task Force coordinator. “We find that if the first initial encounter that they have with law enforcement in this instance is one where they're allowed to talk to a therapist or a counselor and explain the situation that gives them sort of the freedom, a little bit more of a scope to say, ‘Yeah, I want out of this life,’ and we give the off-ramp.”

Parks said that’s an example of the successful multidisciplinary aspect of the task force, with law enforcement and social services working side by side.

“I'm very proud of where we are,” Parks said about the progress of the task force over the last two and a half years.

He said they’ve increased law enforcement operations; the task force divides the state into five regions and, working with local police, they’ve done undercover stings in each region. And Parks said they’ve provided trafficking education for a thousand law enforcement officers, social services providers and others, and helped increase survivor services. 

“So we've developed sort of a network of services. Where can they go that night? Where can they go the next week?” he added.

Parks said “the largest gaps are on the services side,” including a shortage of homes and shelters. “Over the last two years there have been a couple of groups that have stepped up and opened homes and shelter homes and long-term kind of one to two-year places where survivors can rebuild their lives after coming out of this. But it really isn't enough. And especially when you get outside of Omaha and Lincoln and Grand Island, where is that person going to go that night?”

Teresa Houser is executive director of Magdalene Omaha, which opened last December. She described it as “a two-year residential recovery and economic empowerment program for women who survive sex trafficking or prostitution, who have been through abuse, and who have an addiction.” It’s part of a national network of sister organizations to Thistle Farms/Magdalene Nashville, where this model was founded in 1997.

It looks like a regular house in a regular neighborhood. Up to six women live here, with medical care, substance abuse treatment, therapy, education and vocational training provided at no cost. “And then as part of what happens in the residential program, the program manager outlines their educational and vocational goals,” Houser said. “So we tell everybody to dream big. In fact, I say, ‘Dream one size too big.’ And then we try to figure out what do we need to do to ensure that they're reaching their goals."

In the fall the program will open a small business, Thistle Lights, developed and run by these survivors. 

“These women, for a very long time, have not been able to make real choices about their future, so everything we do is designed to empower them,” Houser said. “So they're going to be the ones to decide what those products will be.”

Rachel Pointer, Magdalene Omaha’s program director, said it’s key for trafficking survivors to recover together. “That's the power in being with your peers that we say to each other, ‘I understand. I understand. I've been on that road with you. I've been behind that building with you. I've been in that hotel with you. We've been there.’”

Pointer has been there. She was sold for sex in Omaha for a decade, beginning when she was six-years-old. Then there weren’t trafficking-specific facilities in Nebraska. Now there’s four, which isn’t enough. Magdalene already has a waiting list. Pointer said it can be hard to get facilities and programs started.

“From my perspective as a professional and as a survivor, not every facility is going to be able to meet every need,” Pointer said. “There is a lot of uniqueness to the needs that survivors specifically of trafficking have, and you can't put too many of them in one space at one time. The other thing is it really has to be our choice. If it's not our choice, if it's not our decision, whatever that program looks like it's not going to work. We have to be able to have options and we have to have autonomy in making a decision about whether or not that space is right for us.”

Pointer said the relatively new awareness of trafficking means there also aren’t a lot of best practices to start from.

“I mean the reality is that we went years and years and years and years and years and years and years without really anybody paying attention, and now all of a sudden there's federal dollars being funneled towards trafficking, there's state dollars being funneled towards trafficking, and there's lots of private funding,” she added. “There's really not a lot of really solid research that says these are the programs that work, and everybody who throws money at something wants to know their money is going to do something.”

There’s one way to end the need for services for trafficking victims, and many other things the task force is doing. That’s eliminating the demand for commercial sex.

But Pointer said as long as there are people out there preying on the vulnerable, trafficking will always exist. “Until we start attacking that with a little bit more oomph then we're going to continue to have this problem.”

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