Out of the Darkness

Out of the Darkness

By Ann Freestone, BA’89

Most people don’t think that slavery exists today in the United States, let alone in Nebraska. The sad truth is that human trafficking in the commercial sex industry — those sold involuntarily for sex — occurs every day across the country. Creighton researchers are determining how many victims are affected by this crime — and what can be done about it.  

The Human Trafficking Initiative (HTI) at Creighton uses data science to collect, analyze and evaluate the scope of sex trafficking and identify effective policy solutions. Crysta Price, BA’14, MA’16, co-director of HTI and director of the data science lab, along with Terry Clark, PhD, co-director of HTI and professor of political science, combine their expertise to lead a research agenda that focuses not only on understanding trafficking but also combatting it through policy and services for victims/survivors.

Housed in the Creighton University Heider College of Business, HTI essentially grew out of an undergraduate project. It got started when Price, an undergraduate majoring in international relations, joined an experimental research laboratory led by Clark and faculty in mathematics and computer science. Price assumed leadership of a project simulating international human trafficking flows. Her jointly authored study of the international human trafficking network resulted in a paper, “Disrupting Human Trafficking,” which won “Best Substantive Contribution” at the 2014 Political Networks Conference in Montreal. She subsequently pursued the research as a graduate student at Creighton, earning a master’s degree in data science.

Price brings her expertise in mathematical, statistical and computational modeling to the table, and pores over the latest literature on the subject of human trafficking. Clark’s background is in formal mathematics and social sciences. Today, the two collaborate on all facets of projects coming out of the Human Trafficking Initiative. HTI work spans local human trafficking networks to international aspects.

“We are called upon every week for support activities, such as testimony before legislative committees and questions for agencies,” Price says. Their HTI research has supported the work of law enforcement, nonprofits and government agencies locally, regionally and nationally — from the FBI to the Salvation Army, the Texas Attorney General’s Office and the Michigan Supreme Court, to name just a few.

“Our main goals are to produce reliable research on the prevalence of trafficking and stronger policy solutions,” Price says. HTI research reveals that Nevada has more sex workers per capita advertising online than any other state, followed by New York, Rhode Island and North Dakota. The nation’s capital is the country’s hot spot — its per capita rate exceeds that of all 50 states. While major cities such as Atlanta and Oakland, California, are hotbeds of commercial sex activity, lesser populated areas such as Biloxi, Mississippi, and Greenville, South Carolina, also top the list.

Their most recent project was a report that paints a picture of how prevalent human trafficking is in Nebraska. Much of Nebraska is impacted by the Interstate 80 corridor, which has a relatively high per capita rate from Chicago westward. The Nebraska report (“Nebraska’s Commercial Sex Market”), published in February, reveals that every month, 900 individuals are sold for sex, often multiple times in Nebraska and, of those, 135 — or 15 percent — are at high risk of being trafficked. Seven out of 10 individuals sold for sex, have at least one indicator of being trafficked. Being underage or controlled by a third party are indicators that the person is being trafficked as opposed to voluntarily participating as a prostitute. As Clark points out, one is a victim, the other is a criminal.

“We want to better identify victims within the commercial sex industry — what portion is sex trafficking?” Price says. The research determines where individuals lie on a continuum from sex work on one side to sex trafficking on the other. According to Clark, “We have more trafficking than we initially thought.”

The project was done in conjunction with the Women’s Fund of Omaha. According to Meghan Malik, trafficking project manager at the Women’s Fund of Omaha, she knew the Creighton researchers would be a great fit for their organization.

“The Women’s Fund is rooted in research. Our main goals are to research issues, fund innovative solutions and seek change through policy solutions. We knew as we began to dive into this issue that research would be critical,” Malik says.

“We have to combat trafficking with good research and promising practices. When we sat down with Creighton, they were looking at international and domestic trafficking,” Malik says. “As we had the conversation about all the different pieces, I recognized their skill set was broad: They could look at research in multiple ways, recognize qualitative research was critical and had a broad understanding of trafficking research. Crysta has read every piece of literature on trafficking. It’s so important to have that expertise.”

She points out that Clark and Price’s collaborative approach helps elevate discussions to another level. “We started inviting them to the table for strategizing,” Malik says. “They offered to do things beyond the original plan, are flexible, nimble and move to where they are needed. They are so great to work with.”

The report fills a void of academic research surrounding sex trafficking. “What we brought to the game is good data that didn’t exist,” Clark says. “A lot of the current data is crazy — ridiculous numbers that were pulled out of thin air.”

To conduct the research for this report, Price and Clark spent nearly a year studying advertisements on an online market hub called Backpage, which, at the time of the research, provided advertising for 80 percent of the online commercial sex industry. Buyers and sellers would frequent the page. Separate sites for ads on Backpage included the Nebraska cities of Omaha, Lincoln, Grand Island, North Platte and Scottsbluff — all located along I-80.

In January 2017, pressure from the federal government resulted in shutting down Backpage’s escort ads; however, the Creighton research was conducted before the website was shuttered. According to Price, Craigslist escort ads were stopped in 2010 and moved to Backpage. In the same manner, HTI found that shutting down Backpage did not change the number of individuals sold for sex, but rather resulted in their moving the marketing of services to other sections on the website.

“We treat this as a market,” Price says. “Human trafficking is similar to drug trafficking, but the supply is people. It’s bounded by laws of a market — the higher demand for something, the more profit you can get. Traffickers bring the supply to meet the demand.”

The Nebraska report found that the younger the individual, the higher the hourly rate advertised. This creates incentives for traffickers to recruit younger women and girls.

In Nebraska

“The report is the first empirical data in Nebraska that really illustrates that we do have human trafficking here,” Malik says. “It spreads across Nebraska.”

The Women’s Fund used the research to support LB289, legislation that increases penalties for traffickers and buyers. “The data makes a case that this is here and we have to do something about it,” Malik says. “The current penalties are not strong enough. They don’t create a big enough risk.”

Common venues for human trafficking include large events. In Nebraska, that includes the College World Series in Omaha and the State Fair in Grand Island. “It’s not only in our backyard but in our back pockets with smartphones. It’s five clicks and you can purchase somebody — that can happen very, very quickly,” Malik says.

Both men and women are sex trafficked; however, the majority of sex trafficking victims/survivors are female. They often end up in sex trafficking through men who act like they are their boyfriend, but they are really just trying to build trust so they can traffic the female. It’s a lot of psychological manipulation, Clark says. “[The traffickers] control them and get into their head,” he says. “They groom the girls by getting to know them, act like they are dating — rope them in — so it’s easier to manipulate them. They promise a lifestyle and gifts. It’s relationship-based.” In Nebraska, the data from the HTI report indicates that young girls rarely enter into the commercial sex industry without what the Creighton researchers call a “facilitator,” or pimp, who actively recruits them and breaks them into the industry. In such cases, the facilitator/pimp is a trafficker.

These individuals also use tactics to threaten the victims/survivors. For example, if the victim/survivor is an undocumented migrant, the facilitator/pimp, threatens to turn them over if they don’t show up.  

One example was a 12-year-old victim/survivor from Grand Island who was forced to do six to 10 sex acts a day. “This is not uncommon among the situations we’re aware of,” Price says. Since Backpage couldn’t list someone under age 18, the average age posted was 23 to 24 years. Therefore, the average age is probably a lot younger. In Nebraska, 11 percent of those sold for sex online are advertised under the age of 21. In fact, 71 percent of child sex trafficking reports received by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children are linked to ads on Backpage.

Task Force

The research is also helping the Nebraska Human Trafficking Task Force, which was officially launched by Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson in October 2015 after about six months of preparation. The task force is aided by a $1.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Justice. Stephen Patrick O’Meara, JD’73, former assistant Nebraska attorney general, helped start the task force and served as coordinator of it until he retired in November 2016. O’Meara has been fighting against violence, abuse and degradation of people for 50 years. The last 10 years, beginning when he was an assistant United States attorney, his emphasis has been fighting human trafficking. O’Meara still volunteers to combat human trafficking with the Coalition on Human Trafficking in Omaha, the Iowa Network Against Human Trafficking, and other groups in Nebraska and Iowa.

The task force defines itself as having three primary goals: help victims and survivors, stop human traffickers and eliminate the trafficking market. Participants come from government, social services, law enforcement and other areas. There’s involvement at the local, state and national levels, including Homeland Security. On the services side, for example, the task force now has a statewide administrator for services for victims/survivors through the Salvation Army. In addition to the statewide administrator, there are three human trafficking specialists in Omaha, Grand Island and North Platte, each covering two regions of Nebraska as defined by the task force.

The task force has given seven, two-day comprehensive training sessions in six designated regions across Nebraska, including two training sessions in the greater Omaha area. The presenters used statistics from Creighton’s Human Trafficking Initiative. Since the approach to dealing with human trafficking is multidisciplinary, between 800 and 900 people attended from law enforcement, service providers and victim/survivor advocacy groups as well as from the health care and education professions. The sessions brought together people likely to be engaged on a response team in that region. (A separate program of the Coalition on Human Trafficking trains people working in the hospitality industry to recognize and respond to sex trafficking in hotels and motels.)

“A friend gave me an analogy. If you see someone floating down the river — drowning — you act to save them. If you begin to see an increasing number of people drowning, you should go upstream and see what’s causing them to fall in the river in the first place,” O’Meara says. “Applying this analogy to human trafficking, while continuing researched-influenced, multidisciplinary intervention and prevention involving integrated enforcement and services, people of faith need to make God part of the discussion and a foundation of the solution, and influence our society to do so. While we certainly must continue enhancing efforts of law enforcement and service providers to ‘rescue people drowning in the river,’ we also need to seek faith-informed cultural change to help prevent ‘people drowning in the river, from dangerously falling into the river in the first place.’”  

He says there’s so much to be done to help prevent women and girls, and men and boys, from being likely victims of sex trafficking. “We need to do a better job of dealing with categorical vulnerabilities people experience, which substantially increase their risk of being subjected to sex trafficking,” O’Meara says. He says his 45 years of professional experience, including with the FBI-led Omaha Child Exploitation Task Force, has convinced him that it’s a systemic long-term problem with a list of contributing factors that need to be addressed. A few include child abuse and neglect, mental health, intellectual development, poverty, homelessness, problems with the foster care system, pornography, the commercial sex industry itself, strip clubs, gangs in trafficking, drug abuse and distribution, domestic abuse crimes, and the list goes on.

“We also need to significantly improve efforts to deal with traffickers and buyers. No buyers equals no trafficking. ‘Lowering the river’ would also help prevent victimization of ‘people falling in the river,’” O’Meara says.  

No longer a member of the task force, but supporting its general goals, O’Meara says, “If we want to do something about modern-day slavery, we have to look at this slavery in the context of the broad system of evil of which sex trafficking is a part. If we’re going to move toward accomplishing the three goals of the task force, we have to work on related areas of the system as well as sex trafficking itself.”

Steps Right Now

What can people do right now? According to Malik, “Get educated on it, volunteer for effective antitrafficking organizations doing good work, support legislation and educate others that this is occurring. If you see something, say something by calling the National Human Trafficking Hotline (888.373.7888). If it has a red flag or doesn’t look right, don’t intervene yourself, but make a call on it or call 911. We have an obligation.”

To overcome human trafficking, recommendations from the report include the following:

  • Stronger policies to create job opportunities outside the commercial sex industry.
  • Increased collaboration and information sharing with other states and across jurisdictions between private and public agencies. (The transient nature of individuals sold for sex makes victim identification difficult unless system collaboration occurs.)
  • Anti-trafficking efforts to focus on truck stops, gas stations and hotels along major highways. Increased awareness by working with groups such as Truckers Against Trafficking, as well as help from them in identifying trafficking.  
  • Higher penalties for buyers and increased likelihood of being caught.

What’s Next?  

“Moving forward, we’ll do another research design to capture populations we may be missing,” Price says. For example, the Hispanic and Native American communities do not often use online sources, but instead rely on word of mouth to sell services.

Price and Clark are also assisting in screening tools to identify victims/survivors. “The screening process for individuals who have experienced trauma is so burdensome it creates a barrier to get services,” Malik says. “Creighton is helping us think through if individuals come in at multiple points how we can see that data. We’re also having lots of discussions on where does the data reside and how we protect confidentiality, as well as how to use data to help provide better services to individuals.”

According to Clark, the project is likely to go on for 15 to 20 years. “Human trafficking is like air: It moves and it doesn’t sit still,” he says. “We’re on the ground floor and there’s a lot of work to do.”

Individuals sold for sex come from vulnerable populations — youth, low socio-economic and minorities. “Creighton does important research,” Clark says. “We’re on the forefront of a social justice issue.”