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A dysfunctional childhood led her to drink at 11, get pregnant at 14 and become a sex slave at 17.

She grew up in Omaha watching her biological dad beat her mom. Then her mom died, and she hated her stepdad. She lived with her grandmother, and her uncles drank and did drugs.

Then, at 15, she fell in love with an older guy who treated her well and bought her gifts.

The man started driving her to school, the woman told Linda Burkle in November 2011, and soon she stopped going to school.

Burkle, social services director for the Salvation Army, shared the young woman's story with state lawmakers in the hopes of sparking new legislation against human trafficking. She read the woman’s story from a paper, telling it in the first person, as if she was the victim. The quoted portions below recorded Burkle’s speech on behalf of the woman.

The woman told Burkle the man would drive her downtown and show her girls on the street, tell her how easy it would be to do the same and make lots of money.

"I said that I would never do that," she said.

Two years later, the man taught her about sex. He told her she was good at it and could make quick, easy money doing the same with other men.

She turned her first trick just before her 18th birthday. It was easy, she said. Just five minutes in the back of a car and she made $50. But she didn't keep it.

"I gave every dime to him because I really loved him and wanted to please him," she said. "I was with him all of the time except for when I was in a car working."

By 19, she was traveling to other states, drinking and smoking regularly. She said she tried to leave when she turned 21, but he beat her.

"I was in love with him, I thought," she said. "But afraid of him."

She did get away, but she met another man.

"He expected me to turn tricks and turned me on to crack when I was 22," she said. "He beat me a lot, and I often fought back to protect myself."

She stayed with him for five years. And soon after she left him, she found herself enslaved by another trafficker -- someone she said was worse than the first two.

"He was more abusive than the others," she said. "He would beat me with a gun, a hammer and an electrical cord."

He threatened to hurt her family if she left. Finally, when he was in a deep sleep, she ran and hitchhiked from Oklahoma back to Nebraska. But she didn't know what to do next and she was addicted to drugs. To pay for her next fix, she sold herself, without a pimp. She was in and out of jail.

Finally, she had enough. She got involved with the community, started going to church and turned her life around.

She saved herself.

Nebraska not alone

Burkle shared some of the woman's story with the Judiciary Committee in December 2011, when she testified about why she believed the state needed to address trafficking.

Since then, laws have been passed strengthening the punishment for traffickers and a state task force against trafficking was created. In January, Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks introduced a bill that would protect juvenile sex workers from prosecution.

An estimated 300,000 American men, women and children are victims of sex or labor trafficking, according to the Polaris Project, which runs call centers for the National Human Trafficking hotline.

Sex trafficking is a $9.5 billion industry in the U.S., and it occurs in both urban and rural areas, Polaris says.

Police are finding that some dealers have switched from trafficking drugs to trafficking people because the "product" can be sold over and over -- and it’s relatively easy to avoid punishment, experts say.

From 2010 to 2015, the Omaha Child Exploitation Task Force rescued more than 100 women and girls from sex trafficking. Their average age was 20 -- the youngest 13, the oldest 40. In a survey done by the Women’s Fund of Omaha, more than 600 human services providers, nonprofits, law enforcement agencies, state agencies and for-profit agencies in Nebraska reported they identified sex trafficking victims younger than 17 at least 176 times in the past year.

In Lincoln, Nikki Siegel, outreach director for The Bay, a skate park and outreach program for at-risk youth, said she’s encountered trafficked teenagers, but until recent years, she didn’t realize that's what they were.

“I found a lot of girls who were exploiting themselves, using survival sex, but I didn’t have that definition to make the connection,” she said. “It took a while for us to be aware that that’s what that was called.”

Lincoln police don't have a dedicated trafficking investigator, and reported cases are sent to their criminal investigations unit, Officer Katie Flood said. They also don't have a device to track trafficking cases, which are labeled as prostitution.

Investigators have conducted prostitution stings, including one in early August when six men were arrested on suspicion of soliciting prostitution.

In September, the Lincoln Police Department was involved in a national sex trafficking sting by invitation from the Cook County Sheriff's Office in Illinois. In all, 1,032 people were arrested. Of those, 961 were would-be sex buyers, and the rest traffickers. In Lincoln, 16 men were arrested.

In the weeks leading up to Super Bowl Sunday, Lincoln police arrested 13 more people in connection with prostitution. Six of those were would-be sex buyers, two were cited for pandering after driving women to hotels for prostitution, five were cited for prostitution. None of the accused sex workers arrested said they were being trafficked, police said.

An 'over there' problem

Nationwide, officials are trying to figure out how to tackle a crime formerly thought of as an "over there" problem, said Stephen O'Meara, coordinator for anti-human trafficking efforts in Nebraska. Many states don’t have the resources to overcome it yet, and others are figuring out ways to tackle the problem.

In Nashville, Tennessee, Judge Casey Moreland launched the Human Trafficking Intervention Court on Jan. 26 to provide services to sex workers, including education and long-term treatment as an alternative to jail or prison.

As a nation, "we really just started learning about domestic trafficking in 2000," O'Meara said.

It wasn’t until 2010 that Congress expanded the definition of trafficking to include mental punishment by traffickers as well as physical. Now, the law allows prosecutors to look into the backgrounds of victims and how vulnerable they were as a part of making their cases. People younger than 18 and sold for sex are automatically considered trafficking victims. In the case of adult victims, investigators must prove traffickers used force, fraud or coercion to groom them for sex work.

Experts are learning that vulnerability plays a big role in how a person becomes a victim and why he or she often doesn't try to get away.

"(Traffickers) will gain your trust and fill a need or void where you're insecure," said Cindy Hultine, director of hospitality for the Omaha-based Set Me Free Project. "They create distance between you and your family and say things like, 'If you love me, you'll do this.'"

Hultine described the relationship between a trafficker and victim as "mental bondage." Many young girls don't understand what is happening to them, she said. They continue going to school or work, then meet with the trafficker at night to work.

O'Meara said this type of mental abuse can happen quickly.

In a 2011 case, a woman from Arkansas ended up in Omaha after Johnelle Lewis Bell brought her and several other women to Nebraska. He used coercion and abuse to prostitute them, according to a 50-page federal indictment.

Now serving 30 years in prison for human trafficking, Bell bought the women expensive gifts and took them on trips before getting them to work for him. In court testimony, the women talked about troubled childhoods, mental and emotional problems, bouts of homelessness, lack of familial support and substance abuse.

Bell told them he loved them and would stay with them, provide for them and help them make lots of money, they said. He promised one woman he would help her regain custody of her child if she worked for him, documents say.

The victims testified that once they started working for Bell, the promises evaporated and he took all of the money they made, isolated them from family and friends, and physically abused them.

Omaha police who busted the trafficking ring found the woman in the back of a car in the fetal position, shaking and crying.

"She had been gone for a week and her family didn't recognize her," O'Meara said.

Many people question victims' involvement and wonder why they don’t run away or ask someone for help, he said.

“It’s called survival sex,” O'Meara said. “If they’ve been given a life to live a certain way, they may not honestly know that there is a different way to live life.”

In Bell's case, victims testified that he threatened their families, telling one woman he'd have one member of her family killed for every year he spent in prison should he be arrested.

Even once they’re saved, many women find themselves back in the hands of a different pimp, in a never-ending cycle perpetuated by a lack of help from service providers, such as women's shelters and mental health facilities.

Not enough help, information

Meghan Malik, trafficking response coordinator for the Women’s Fund of Omaha, said 84 percent of service providers in the state don’t believe they are meeting the needs of their clients who were victims of sex trafficking. Mostly, she said, they need more mental health services, emergency shelters and crisis intervention.

Malik said service and law enforcement groups still find themselves asking the same series of questions: What do we do after a victim is rescued? How do we continue offering survivors care for life? And what should services look like?

A federal grant for anti-human trafficking efforts awarded on Oct. 1 is helping Nebraska get a step closer to finding those answers, but even with 40 or 50 law enforcement agencies and service providers working together, it could take years before the state has a solid plan, O'Meara said.

“We describe these efforts as a ‘best beginning point,’” he said. “There’s a lot to do, and there’s still a lot of research to do.”

In order to understand human trafficking, Hultine said, experts need to understand the victims, which is something the Women's Fund of Omaha is working on.

“Who am I to say what those (care) services should look like?” Malik asked. “(The victims) are helping us figure that out. … We’re looking at this now -- how do we provide services for life? What do those services look like? How do we keep them out of 'the life' and safe?”

Sriyani Tidball, a lecturer at the College of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, began working to end trafficking in 1981, when she and her husband founded a nonprofit social services organization in Sri Lanka. She's also helped set up an orphanage for homeless, abused and trafficked women there.

“The voice of the survivors is often left out,” Tidball said. “But it’s a very necessary part if we ever want to find real solutions.”

Survivors can give experts insight on what type of law enforcement training is needed or what services are lacking. Many survivors Tidball has spoken with now run nonprofits for anti-trafficking groups, she said.

“It’s interesting to see the cycle of them becoming a victim, then a survivor and now an activist,” she said. “They want to change the world.”

Tidball and other researchers don't know when their work will be done, but the research and information gained by talking to survivors will help advocates prepare legislation and policies to help end trafficking as well as looking at how nonprofits can help turn victims into survivors.

One of the most powerful bills introduced to the Nebraska legislature this year will decriminalize prostitution for minors, she said.

However, Tidball argues the law should be taken further. Buying sex should come with harsher punishments, she said, and victims of any age shouldn’t be arrested.

“I have never met a woman who wanted to sell themselves,” she said.

Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson has said the state will shift its law enforcement efforts away from victims.

“The criminal is the trafficker and the customer,” he said.

But taking down the johns and putting victims in a social services program isn't going to be enough, O'Meara said.

“If we save a victim but we don’t stop the trafficker of that victim, we have probably just made another victim,” he said. “Because this is market-driven, that perpetrator, that trafficker is going to go out and find another victim and we don’t want to be in that business.”

Former state Sen. Amanda McGill, who helped pass legislation to decriminalize prostitution of minors, said education is the next step.

“With an issue that is very difficult for people to wrap their minds around, in a culture where people make jokes about pimps and prostitutes, we definitely need to help (the public) understand that these are really victims, that these women, even if they’re 25, the trafficking probably started when they were 12 or 13 with sexual abuse,” she said.

McGill said there's a need for major public awareness campaigns in addition to more law enforcement training and added services.

“We need to fund these things, which is why it’s important for the public to understand this problem," she said. "The people at the table aren’t just looking at government, but communities, too.”

Set Me Free

The Omaha project visited Sheridan Lutheran Church in Lincoln recently to talk with middle and high school students about trafficking.

"Human trafficking is a form of modern day slavery," Cindy Hultine told them. "Pimps are slave owners."

She also spoke directly to their parents, telling them to continue the "stranger danger" education passed along in elementary school and to monitor social media accounts.

"Someone who is 13 shouldn't have more than 200 friends on Facebook," she said. "They don't know that many people."

Malik of the Women's Fund in Omaha said she'll continue to help bring resources together and hopes to launch an educational campaign showing Nebraskans what human trafficking is.

“Hopefully, that will help the everyday person, medical care personnel, to be able to spot a victim and call police who have the resources to help,” she said.

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7395 or nmanna@journalstar.com. On Twitter @LJSNicholeManna.

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