“There are more people in slavery in our country today than at any time in our history,” said Sister Shirley Fineran. “We call it modern slavery.”
Fineran, who has been a member of the Franciscan order since 1962, is a Crawford County native and teaches social work at Briar Cliff University.
She spoke about the problem of human trafficking at St. Ann’s Catholic Church in Vail on Sunday.
About 60 members of the public attended the talk.
Human trafficking is one of the most important topics of our time, Fineran said.
Human trafficking is the second leading crime and generates about $62 billion dollars per year in the United States, she said.
Human trafficking has two main categories.
Sex trafficking is inducing an individual to perform a sex act for money.
Inducing a minor into such a sex act is a felony. For adults, force, fraud or coercion must be involved for the act to be considered a felony.
Labor trafficking is the exploitation of a person for work through force, fraud or coercion.
Another growing area is organ trafficking, in which a victims’ organs are stolen.
Most of Fineran’s comments on Sunday dealt with sex trafficking.
“I’m sure there is labor trafficking in your communities,” she said.
A common way for individuals to become ensnared by a trafficker is to be promised a job that is far from their home.
“When they get where they are going, all of their identification is taken and all of their money, so they have no way to pay for anything,” Fineran said. “They are slaves to whoever brought them there.”
In Iowa, the average age of individuals targeted for sex trafficking is between 11 and 15 years.
“Those are the ages where people are trafficked to be sold for sex 15 to 20 times a day,” she said.
Children are more trusting, which makes them more vulnerable to being trafficked.
Sex traffickers often use individuals closer to their target’s age as recruiters.
Boys or young men will pretend to be a girl’s boyfriend and promise them something better than what they have at home.
Boys – particularly transgender boys – are trafficked as well, Fineran said.
“The primary recruiters are not dirty old men,” Fineran said.
Recruiters tend to be between 15 and 25 years old.
“If you are 15, you might be smart enough to think a 35-year-old man is not going to be your boyfriend,” she said. “But another 15-year-old might be.”
Recruiters look for children after school or events and target those who are alone.
“Parents can’t always be there when kids get out of school,” Fineran said. “That is the most dangerous time.”
Children who seem lonely or don’t have anyone to take care of them may be targeted.
A car ride can end with the victim being sold for sex within hours or days.
Threats against friends or family members are used to get the victim’s cooperation.
“We are dealing with people who have no sense of right and wrong,” she said. “They have no qualms about threatening and carrying through on threats.”
Social media is used by traffickers to identify targets.
“Traffickers, by and large, don’t drive through Vail and look for kids on the street,” Fineran said.
“Social media is the primary way today that kids and adults are being groomed into trafficking.”
Traffickers spend time on social media looking for children to approach.
Gifts of shoes, drugs or food, or promises of a career as a model, will be used to gain a victim’s trust.
Pimps say, “If you promise a young girl heaven, they will follow you to hell,” she said.
Homeless children and runaways are most at risk of falling into trafficking.
“One in six runaways is in danger of being trafficked,” Fineran said.
Victims who fall into trafficking are often given a tattoo, sometimes in an area that is not easy to see, to show they belong to someone.
Traffickers give drugs and food to their victims and then tell them they are owed something in return.
“And kids feel they should do something,” she said.
“After a while, the person being trafficked willingly takes drugs just to get through the day.”
Getting a victim away from a trafficker is difficult, because the victim must tell someone about what is happening.
“If a person is caught selling drugs, the drugs are evidence and law enforcement can see it,” she said. “With trafficking, unless the person gives them up, they don’t have any evidence.”
Victims are often hesitant to give up the trafficker, Fineran said.
“Often, the victims have had a longer, closer relationship with their trafficker than with anybody else in their life,” she said.
“Even though he beats her, abuses her and makes her do things she doesn’t want to do, he’s the only one who cares for her, in a way.”
The number one time that trafficking happens in Iowa is during the Iowa State Fair, Fineran said.
“Law Enforcement knows because the lines light up,” she said.
Many victims never make it out of trafficking.
“The women are killed by their trafficker or a buyer,” she said. “Some women take their lives because of what they have to endure.”
She asked the attendees to put the number for the national human trafficking hotline, 888-373-7888, in their phones.
Fineran helped found the Siouxland Coalition Against Human Trafficking in 2014.
She founded the Siouxland Restoration Center and is raising funds to develop Lila Mae’s House in Sioux City, which will be a home that will help women who have been trafficked.
She is currently raising funds to complete and staff the house.
Fineran asked the attendees to share her warning about human trafficking to their children and grandchildren.
“This is a situation that is very real,” she said.
She encouraged parents to keep an eye on their children’s phones.
“You need to know if they are talking to someone that you don’t know or they don’t know,” she said.
“You could be saving their life.”