‘Happening In Plain Sight:’ Victim, Officials Stress Prevalence Of Human Trafficking In Midwest

April 19, 2020

BY ANNIE MEHL annie.mehl@thmedia.com

After Heather Brown set off for college not far from her hometown in Iowa, she met a man she planned to one day call her husband.

They spent their days together talking about Brown’s hobbies, goals and aspirations. She shared her love for mission work and giving back.

“I’ve always had a heart for service,” she said. “I am a peacemaker. I don’t like when people are hurting or being hurt. I want to fix it.”

Over the next few months, Brown let her boyfriend in on her secrets. She revealed her financial struggles and opened up about her problems with spending.

Her boyfriend offered to lock her credit cards in a safe but gave her the combination to access them. He told her he could help.

Then, he changed the code.

“His rebuttal was, ‘You spent a lot of money this month on stuff you didn’t need,’” she said.

At that time, it made sense to Brown. Even though she could no longer access her bank accounts, this was a solution to her overspending.

It was all part of the grooming process.

One day, her boyfriend’s dad — who she previously met — stopped by. Soon, he had her pinned up against a wall.

“If I need you for anything, you are going to come,” he told her. “You belong to me now.’”

Then, he raped her.

Brown’s boyfriend sat on the bed motionless and watched. When Brown later asked her boyfriend why he didn’t stop it, he said he would be hurt, too.

But both father and son were part of a human trafficking ring.

Weeks later, a strange man grabbed Brown as she was walking home and said, “You’re coming with us.”

She couldn’t fight. If she did, the man said, he would hurt her or her family.

That night, Brown was forced inside a bare room with cinder block walls.

She heard noises from strangers down the hall but was left alone in the bleak room. Until one after the other, men and women entered her room. Sometimes they came alone; sometimes together.

She was raped for the next 12 hours.

When it was over, her traffickers forced her to count the money they made from selling her body to more than 50 people.

In her hands was $60,000.

Force, fraud and coercion

It wasn’t until 2017, nine years after she was first trafficked, that she learned what human trafficking was.

For Brown, she was doing what she had to in order to survive. She did what she had to for love.

“This was just what I had to do to get that love,” she said. “It took a while for me to say, ‘I am being trafficked.’ Even a year ago, I struggled with that. A part of me will always love that guy I met my freshman year of college.”

In 2018, 211 human-trafficking victims were identified in Iowa, along with 60 traffickers and 39 trafficking businesses, according to National Human Trafficking Hotline. It is operated by Polaris Project, a Washington, D.C., national nonprofit that focuses on sex and labor trafficking.

The nonprofit reported that, in 2018, it worked on 10,949 cases reported through the hotline. The cases involved more than 23,000 survivors, 5,859 potential traffickers and 1,905 trafficking businesses.

Despite those numbers, the Polaris Project said the crime of human trafficking is grossly underreported and often unreported.

Suzie Wright is an advocate with Set Free Dubuque, a nonprofit organization that works to educate people about human trafficking. She has worked with human-trafficking survivors since 2001.

Over the years, she has seen the awareness level in Dubuque about human trafficking grow immensely. But what she said people are hesitant to believe is that it can happen to someone they know.

People also don’t understand that human trafficking often does not include kidnapping, Wright said. Many people are brought into the “ring” of trafficking through what the U.S. law defines as “the use of force, fraud or coercion to compel a person into commercial sex acts or labor or services against his or her will.”

For many victims like Brown, it is a person they know that pulls them in, Wright said.

“For some people, it’s the person they are dating,” Wright said. “For other people, it’s the person that is their parental figure. For others, it’s a close relationship.”

In the 19 years since Wright started serving as an advocate, every victim she has helped had been trafficked by someone they were directly linked to or dating.

“They were sold this dream of some great life and instead find themselves enslaved,” she said. “(Some) don’t realize they have been trapped into human trafficking because they don’t have the perception of, ‘It’s not my fault.’”

Hard to catch, easy to hide

Brown’s advocate, Ruth Buckles, started meeting with her in 2017 and helped her understand that she was being trafficked. Buckles explained Brown was forced into the system through fraud and coercion.

Buckles said Iowans have the wrong mindset when it comes to human trafficking. They need to start viewing it as a business. It’s more than just sex or manual labor — it’s a multibillion-dollar empire.

“This is a way for them to make a buck,” Buckles said. “People have to be willing to talk about trafficking not as a sex crime but as business and ways that people get drawn in.”

The National Human Trafficking Hotline grades states as part of its victim relief report card. Illinois and Wisconsin received grades of F, while Iowa was not awarded one because the state does not currently have a “trafficking-specific criminal relief statute,” according to the site.

This means human trafficking survivors in Iowa do not have any assistance if they are arrested and charged with a crime such as prostitution while being trafficked, according to officials.

But Maureen Quann, the City of Dubuque’s assistant city attorney, said the lack of assistance for victims stems from a backward way of thinking about human trafficking.

“Sooner or later, there will be more legislative efforts to shed more light on it,” she said. “Sooner or later, we will recognize that it is not always voluntary, but as long as there is always a market over here, it will be a business. You have to find ways to kind of shift the market and find that balance and stop punishing the victim.”

Quann said when a business owner is convicted of human trafficking, their fine is similar to a person being trafficked, or “prostituted.”

“We’re always punishing this person as much as we are punishing the marketplace,” she said.

In Iowa, an adult who knowingly engages in human trafficking is guilty of a class D felony. The maximum prison sentence is five years.

A person who takes part in “prostitution” can be charged with an aggravated misdemeanor, which is punishable of up to two years in jail.

That’s where things get tricky for law enforcement, said Dubuque Police Chief Mark Dalsing. The distinction between force and choice is not always clear, and many victims do not see themselves as such.

“When you’re dealing with such sensitive issues of sex and drugs and the acts they have been forced into, there is some embarrassment level,” Dalsing said. “There are some repressed memories. With all the negatives that go along with it, there is still a bond in many of the cases. It’s really challenging. It’s really similar to domestic assaults.”

Iowa nice

Over the years, Brown said, she was not the only one being trafficked by the “ring” she was part of. She saw hundreds of boys, girls, men and women in the same situation as her.

And the traffickers often come across as regular, everyday people, she said.

“The reality of it is those are the people,” she said. “I have been sold to doctors and lawyers and law enforcement and school teachers and to pastors. It doesn’t discriminate.”

More than 10 years ago, Kim Hilby, an assistant sociology and criminal justice professor at the University of Dubuque, picked up a book about human trafficking and was horrified.

Hilby approached the faculty at the university and asked about beginning a course on human trafficking. Most were supportive, but some questioned her.

“When we first started, professionals and community members would say, ‘I don’t know why you are doing this. It doesn’t happen here,’” she said.

Initially, Hilby had no research, data or statistics to present to her class because they weren’t available. Her teaching was based off of experts such as law enforcement, survivors and advocates.

She said the conversation regarding human trafficking really has just begun in Iowa and throughout the Midwest and that enough funding still is not allocated to tracking the problem.

“We just have no money for people to do anything as far as research is concerned,” Hilby said.

It takes a village

For years, Brown searched for help. But it wasn’t until a family friend asked her to join a Bible study that she finally found someone to listen.

Her friend directed her to a victim advocate who introduced Brown to Buckles — the person who saved her life, Brown said.

But every time they met to talk at a coffee shop, Brown was being watched. The traffickers tracked her car and her phone.

“I paid a price. … The raping afterwards, the burning on my skin, the cuts, (it) was intense, and it was to try to scare me from talking with her,” she said.

For the past few years, Robert “Woodstock” Bader, the owner of The Crow’s Nest tattoo studio in Dubuque, has offered free tattoo removal services to survivors. He has seen their cuts, burns and brands left from their traffickers.

“Those people will literally put brands on people,” he said. “I’ve seen scannable bar codes as if the person was like cattle. These people were actually tracked.”

Other local businesses are working to help fight human trafficking. Staff at Dubuque hotels such as Hotel Julien Dubuque and Grand Harbor Resort and Waterpark have taken human trafficking training put together by the Coalition Against Human Trafficking.

Recently, the Iowa House of Representatives approved a bill to offer hotels in the state an incentive to complete a human trafficking program, said Iowa Rep. Chuck Isenhart, D-Dubuque.

If the bill passes the Senate, hotels in the area can register beginning Jan. 1, 2022, to take part in training to learn how to spot human trafficking. Government employees then only would be reimbursed for stays at such hotels.

“Dubuque has a good tradition of groups coming together to work on problems,” Isenhart said. “Dubuque is kind of a destination, we like to say. This is another way we can make our community more appealing.”

But it wasn’t just hotels that Brown was raped in. It was campgrounds, homes and gas station restrooms.

She also said human trafficking does not discriminate.

“I think the biggest thing is that everybody fits the profile of either a victim or a buyer or seller,” she said. “Nobody is above it, and nobody is below it, and the reality is that it’s happening in plain sight to the girl next door.”

Save one more

When Brown traveled to the state Capitol with Buckles to tell her story, people approached and said, “You’re a smart person. How did this happen to you?”

But they don’t understand the bonds or how traffickers controlled every part of Brown’s life.

When Buckles started speaking out about human trafficking, she was alarmed to see how many people opened up about it.

“Once we started talking about it to other people, we started hearing the words, ‘Me, too,’” Buckles said. “Before Hollywood ever had a #MeToo movement, Iowa had a #MeToo movement for sex trafficking.”

Among those to speak up was Brown.

“If I don’t stand up and speak out, how is it going to stop?” she asked. “I am just a small part of the bigger picture. At the end of the day, I do it to try to be able to save one more (life).”