STORY BY GUILIANA LAMANTIA
As a major city lying at the crossroads of Interstates 80 and 35, Des Moines has become a vulnerable spot for human trafficking.
Domestic Violence Sexual Assault Immigration Attorney for Justice For Our Neighbors, Joy Moore, believes this is because much of the business happens underground.
“(Human trafficking is) prominent enough that there are a lot of organizations that are attempting to eradicate it,” Moore said.
Since the Drake Relays draws mass amounts of people from all over and out of town, there is concern about traffickers being drawn to the crowds.
Teresa Downing, executive director of the Iowa Network Against Human Trafficking, believes there is an increase in activity around strip clubs and escort services.
Traffickers trying to recruit customers and workers will try to casually lure them into a job that seems legitimate, typically in adult entertainment.
“Traffickers look like everyday people,” Downing said. “They can be men, they can be women, good looking young men, college-student-age, and they are looking for people to invite to participate in the sex trade. My guess if they wanted to approach a Drake student, they would approach her or him by asking them to dance at a club or to work for an escort agency or be a private dancer or something like that. They wouldn’t come out and directly say, ‘I want you to serve as a prostitute during the Drake Relays.’ They usually start by making it look legitimate.”
While the average persons trafficked in Des Moines are females ages 12 to 14, Downing thinks college students can indeed be at risk during Relays, especially with a recent higher demand for college students in the industry.
“Many states are increasing penalty of sex trafficking of children,” Downing said. “Because of that, some traffickers are trying to recruit more young adults because it puts them at less of a risk. That would make college students a prime target. Also, there’s a demand for college students.”
Downing strongly cautions students to be extremely careful while interacting with strangers who may ask them to dance at clubs or become involved in adult entertainment.
She also suggests to meet up in a public place if spending time with a stranger, since traffickers will typically try to befriend those they are trying to recruit.
“Another thing for students to be wary of is that if they do agree to participate in any type of adult service, even if its stripping, the pimp can use that as means of extortion by turning them in to the student’s parents or publishing them online,” Downing said. “Once they get to know the student, they can threaten to harm or kill the student if they don’t participate, they can threaten to harm or kill the student’s friends if they refuse to participate.”
Senior Criminal Investigator Michael Ferjak has directed the Attorney General’s Human Trafficking Enforcement and Prosecution Initiative since 2012. The initiative is training law enforcers and spreading awareness throughout Iowa about human trafficking.
Only one hour of Iowa law enforcement training is spent on human trafficking, according to Ferjak.
Due to the lack of knowledge and resources, young trafficking victims are often seen as criminals and arrested.
“The main way trafficking victims come to the attention of law enforcement or the criminal justice system is through some kind of enforcement action,” Ferjak said. “They’re either arrested for prostitution, drug dealing, theft or something like that, because the trafficker has told them to do that.”
Since the start of the initiative, improvements have been made, but there are other problems.
Another issue being looked at is what to do with runaways from different states, as the majority of human trafficking victims found are not originally from Iowa.
“Our legislature is moving. They did some good work last year, they put into effect a law that says if you arrest a minor for prostitution, drug dealing, whatever it is that’s at the address of the trafficker, you can divert them from the criminal justice system through the use of a child in need of assistance petition and put them into a service environment,” Ferjak said. “That’s exactly what needs to happen. They do not need to be arrested, and they do not need to be in jail, they need to be in service and in shelter.”
With the increase and high demand of sex trade workers in Des Moines, various organizations are pushing for better legislation on the issues.
Kya Norby, a P2 student involved in Street Lights Des Moines, a prayer ministry for human trafficking, sees the legislative problems behind trafficking in Des Moines.
“There is no felony charge for (trafficking),” Norby said. “We need to get legislation to change that because if there’s a felony charge on it, it’s going to steer people from doing it. I think the environment has allowed it to happen under the rug because no one is looking, and there’s not really a huge consequence, there’s no one trying to stop them.”
Norby and Ferjak agree the most important thing people can do is to remain aware and report what they see.
Students are encouraged to report any suspicious behavior during Relays and throughout the year to 911 and the Human Trafficking Hotline at (888)-373-7888.