Law enforcement and social service agencies are preparing a major push to clamp down on human trafficking in Nebraska, but advocates say the state should do more for survivors who are likely to require housing, specialized counseling and medical care.
The new approach championed by Attorney General Doug Peterson focuses on helping survivors, stopping traffickers and shrinking the market by going after customers instead of victims who are coerced into working as prostitutes. A state task force is developing a plan, and Peterson is considering legislation next year to increase criminal penalties for traffickers.
Advocates are starting with a focus on sex trafficking, where victims — usually women and children — are forced into prostitution. They eventually plan to expand their efforts into labor trafficking, a form of modern-day slavery in which people are made to work through violence, threats or debt bondage.
"It's really important that we get out and start prosecuting these guys and getting services to the young ladies" who are sexually trafficked, Peterson said. "We have to let this industry know that to operate in Nebraska, you're going to place yourself at great risk."
Yet Peterson and other advocates acknowledge major changes will take time, largely because Nebraska has a shortage of services that are tailored to sex trafficking victims.
The Women's Fund of Omaha conducted a survey last year that found 84 percent of "service providers," including nonprofits and state agencies, did not believe they were adequately meeting the needs of people who have been trafficked.
Survivors often need an array of services including housing, education and life skills training and "peer mentoring" from others who have similar experiences, said Meghan Malik, the group's trafficking response coordinator.
Many have criminal records because they were forced to participate in illegal activity, making it harder for them to find a job. Without a support system, Malik said, many will return to prostitution because it's a way to make money.
"It's the life they know, and they have to put a roof over their heads and feed their children," Malik said. "It's really on us as a community and service providers to ensure we're providing a comprehensive array of services. We're making progress, but we still have a long way to go."
Stephen Patrick O'Meara, the human trafficking coordinator for the Nebraska attorney general's office, said the state is working to improve services for survivors.
Survivors frequently suffer from mental health and substance abuse problems, as well as developmental disabilities that impair their judgment. Many experience post-traumatic stress disorder, have no place safe to go, and may believe their pimp is caring for them. Some foreign trafficking victims speak no English.
O'Meara said authorities will pursue serious charges against traffickers to prevent them from creating new victims, but they also must help victims avoid falling into the same pattern. He said they're also working to dispel the notion that trafficking isn't a state problem.
"I'm beginning to see a significant shift in awareness," said O'Meara, a former federal prosecutor who has worked on human trafficking issues since 2007. "But we're not there yet. There are still a lot of people out there who don't believe or don't want to believe that something like this could happen in a good place like Nebraska."
The human trafficking task force is building a statewide network of law enforcement, prosecutors, social service agencies, doctors and nurses, and industries that are more likely to encounter prostitutes, such as motels and trucking.
The task force now has caseworkers in Omaha, Grand Island and North Platte who are training others to recognize signs of human trafficking, said Alicia Webber, program manager for the Salvation Army's anti-human trafficking initiative. The initiative began in October in partnership with the Nebraska attorney general's office.
Nebraska has seen a handful of high-profile human trafficking cases, but tracking specific numbers has proven difficult because many are prosecuted as prostitution or child sexual assault cases, which carry harsher penalties. O'Meara said a recent study found more than 1,850 people in Nebraska who were likely engaging in prostitution between November and May, and he suspects many were sex trafficking victims.
In 2014, Adrien Jamaal Cole of Omaha was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison for sex trafficking in Nebraska and Iowa. In 2010, authorities disrupted a three-year prostitution ring in Omaha and Council Bluffs that preyed on women and teenage girls.
The Nebraska task force's work includes a heavy focus on training. Instead of immediately arresting women who are caught in prostitution stings, law enforcement officers are being taught to look for signs that they are trafficking victims. Minors are automatically treated as trafficking victims.
"The picture has completely changed," Peterson said. "A 16-year-old girl typically doesn't get into prostitution by herself. Someone is most likely profiting significantly off of her."
Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln is working with the attorney general's office on legislation to increase criminal penalties for human traffickers and customers. This year, the Legislature approved a bill she introduced providing legal immunity to adult sex trafficking victims who are caught working as prostitutes. Nebraska already grants immunity to juvenile victims.
Pansing Brooks said most prostitutes have been trafficking victims at some point, and the state is only now starting to treat them differently.
"It's a huge sea change," she said.