By Tom Venzor
In Nebraska, at least 900 individuals are sold for sex multiple times each month. Just last fall, 41 Nebraskans were arrested during a human trafficking sting. Many of us, busy with work, school, soccer games, church activities, are unaware of this horrifying reality happening in our backyard. From Scottsbluff to Omaha, at truck stops, motels and in our neighborhoods, young women and men find themselves enslaved for the sake of profit.
To help address this problem locally, a bill was signed into law this week in the Nebraska Legislature to ensure harsher punishment for those caught buying or selling sex.
Human trafficking is the act of recruiting, harboring, transporting, providing, or obtaining a person for compelled labor or commercial sex acts through force. This industry is one the fastest growing criminal industries internationally, behind the drug trade.
A clear violation of human dignity and justice, this problem persists globally and nationally. The facts of human trafficking may shock and unnerve you, as they did me.
Worldwide, at least 2 million children are exploited every year in commercial sex trade, and approximately 300,000 children are at risk of being prostituted in the United States. Per a study by the Nebraska Attorney General’s office and the Women’s Fund of Omaha, 32 percent of those trafficked in Nebraska are minors.
While it is difficult to pinpoint the financial scope of the industry, the Department of Justice estimates that sex trafficking generates $9.5 billion annually in the United States alone. This vast economy infiltrates so many other industries, including food, clothing manufacturing and labor.
The Church denounces human trafficking as a violation of personal dignity and exploitation for profit, and has not remained silent in the face of this modern form of slavery. Last November, Pope Francis spoke out against human trafficking, very clearly considering the matter a grave evil:
Human trafficking is an open wound on the body of contemporary society, a scourge upon the body of Christ. It is a crime against humanity.
More needs to be done on the level of raising public consciousness and effecting a better coordination of effects by governments, the judiciary, law enforcement officials and social workers.
And while there is still a great deal of work to be done to prevent sex trafficking, rescue victims, and change the hearts and minds of those involved, the Nebraska Legislature has taken a great step in the punishment of buyers and sellers.
LB289, introduced by Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks and co-sponsored by Senators on both sides of the political aisle, passed the final round of voting and was signed into law by Gov. Ricketts this week. Under LB289, people who buy or sell sex in Nebraska would face much longer prison sentences. For anyone who forces children into prostitution or pays for sex with a child, the law would require a minimum of 20 years to a maximum life sentence. Trafficking an adult would result in a prison sentence between one and 50 years.
In recent years, Nebraska has taken other measures to address the issue locally. The Legislature passed a law last year officially making human trafficking illegal in the state, and have passed several new laws to protect victims. Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson formed the Nebraska Human Trafficking Task Force to help law enforcement, prosecutors, service providers and community partners enforce and carry out these laws.
Being faced with such a serious injustice begs the question: “what can we do?” Below are five concrete actions for all of us to take to help combat human trafficking.
- Educate yourself on the topic and be aware of how traffickers target young men and women. Learn the indicators of human trafficking so you can help identify a potential victim.
- Meet with or write to your local, state and national government representatives to let them know you care about this issue and ask what they are doing to address it.
- Pray ardently for an end to human trafficking and particularly for the protection of minors.
- Support a victim service provider, volunteer in efforts in your community and spread awareness of the issue.
- If you think you have witnessed trafficking or encountered a victim of human trafficking, call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline at 1-888-373-7888.