This story is part of our "Best of 2011" series of reports, airing Dec. 26 to Dec. 30, 2011, on NET Radio, looking back at some of the top Signature Stories from NET News throughout the year. It originally aired Oct. 28.
Although statistics vary, the U.S. State Department estimates that so far in 2011, 12.3 million people around the world have been victims of human trafficking. A considerable portion of that number includes victims of the sex trade industry. Now, Nebraska representatives, law enforcement, and family agencies are discovering more young women being forced into prostitution around the state.
For Al Riskowski, executive director of the Nebraska Family Council in Lincoln, convincing Nebraskans it's an issue has been one of the biggest challenges.
"One of our largest problems we have here in Nebraska is to educate people, to convince people human trafficking is right here in our state," he said.
It was an issue he himself first became involved with after flipping through the local Yellow Pages.
"I needed an excavator, so I went to the Yellow Pages and stumbled upon 'escort services'," Riskowski explained. "And when I saw these, large, half- to quarter-page ads five years ago, those ads included minor girls (that) would come to your home, your business, in the nude, to do whatever you wanted."
Riskowski said he went straight to the then-chief of the Lincoln Police Department, Tom Casady.
"(I had) the telephone directory in my hand, saying, 'What is this? This sounds like prostitution, but surely not - it can't be advertising in the Yellow Pages.'"
At that time, Casady told him it was, in fact, prostitution, and that the police department was unaware of any of escort services that were legitimate.
Upon skimming through the directory now, several advertisements offering escort services are still present, although they do not explicitly solicit minors. Online, however, it's a different story. AT&T's Yellowpages.com features nearly double the amount of escort services listings. The website states that it only allows postings by legitimate, licensed businesses, but when NET News attempted to contact the organization for additional information on those guidelines, our calls were not returned.
Riskowski's concerns have been echoed by lawmakers across Nebraska. One of them is State Sen. Mark Christensen of Imperial, Neb. Earlier this year, Christensen sponsored LB 444, a bill requiring businesses that provide escort services to obtain a permit from local authorities, in order to crack down on illegal trafficking and prostitution rings.
"Some escorts are just fronts for prostitution and without regulation of the industry, it's difficult for police to bring enforcement," Christensen said at a hearing for the bill.
Proponents of the bill included Pastor Tom Barber, the executive director of the People's City Mission in Lincoln, which provides services for the homeless and needy. At the hearing, Barber testified in support of the bill, saying that his organization has housed numerous victims of sex trades and prostitution seeking refuge.
"This bill or bills similar to it might help curb prostitution, at least in Lincoln, and slow down the men and the criminal groups that are in the market," he said at the hearing. "Especially those that are framing their trade as escort services."
LB 444 failed in the senate. Christensen attributed that to misconception by fellow lawmakers, whom he felt thought the bill instead acted to rationalize and legalize escort services.
Either way, Riskowski said the issue has become a complex one. He added that it didn't take long before the Nebraska Family Council began seeing the problem first hand. In December of last year, one Nebraska woman came to the organization desperate for help after discovering that her daughter was returning home at night with bruises all over her body. Soon after, she discovered a sheet of paper on her daughter's bed with a list of websites.
"When she went on to the websites, she found her daughter was there partly nude ... and it had her advertised for so much every 15 minutes, every 30 minutes, in regard to prostitution," Riskowski said. "She came crying to our office, asking, 'What do I do?'"
It was then that the NFC reached out to the woman's 19-year-old daughter.
"In our conversation with her, she related six other girls who were also being held by this gentleman," Riskowski continued. "She was afraid to come out because of the assault, and threats on her family; that they would also assault them if she left. Finally, I believe it was just right at Christmas time, she telephoned us and said, 'They're going to kill me if I don't get out.'"
The NFC worked with the Lincoln Police Department to have the young woman and her family relocated outside of the state to a safe area. The LPD proceeded to launch an investigation and soon discovered several other women being forced into soliciting sex by a group of local men.
Riskowski added that even undercover prostitution busts in the area by the LPD have uncovered similar circumstances:
"The Lincoln police set up a sting where a female police officer dressed as a prostitute" and had a hidden microphone, he said. "They thought that they would catch individuals soliciting prostitution."
And they did.
"Within three minutes, she was approached for prostitution services. So this gentleman said, 'I'd like to take you over to the apartments across the street and buy your services.' She said, 'Great.' She walked up there thinking, 'We've got our first catch of the day.'
"Well, he turned to her and said, 'I don't want you as a prostitute. I own you now. I'm taking you to Chicago. I'm going to sell you and make good money off of you. If you don't do what I want you to do, I'm going to beat ... whatever ... out of you, force you to do whatever I want,'" Riskowski recalled. "The police, even, were stunned how quickly her life had been taken over."
As the state continues to combat sex trafficking networks, Riskowski said there is more of a need for simple public awareness. He emphasized that the Nebraska Family Council is working to make this happen. But one of the biggest obstacles to overcome is the demand for sexual services. That, he said, has to be targeted as well.
"The FBI tell us, and this is a very eye-opening bit of information, the time of peak use of prostitution is between nine in the morning and four in the afternoon," he said. "It's during business hours, where a businessman slips out from his business to solicit prostitution. The FBI is becoming aware of this and is going to be more aggressive in prosecuting."