By Celine Klosterman
DAVENPORT — After enduring months as a sex trafficking victim, Ruth Buckels’ adopted daughter Brittany has been slowly healing for years.
In hopes of sparing other people from such trauma, Buckels shared Brittany’s story Nov. 15 during “The Child Next Door,” a human trafficking conference held at St. Ambrose University. The university and Diocese of Davenport helped sponsor the daylong event, which drew about 275 attendees including social-service providers, legal personnel and people of faith.
A resident of Story County and a social worker, Buckels shared how Brittany was removed from a sexually abusive home and later fled a treatment facility at age 14. At a Hy-Vee store in Cedar Rapids, a man offered her a modeling job, food and housing, so she left with him. He took her to Chicago, where she was forced into prostitution, beaten and advertised on www.craigslist.com’s adult services section, which the website shut down in 2010 under public pressure.
Brittany found rescue after an undercover police officer arrested her. A charge of prostitution was dropped because she was underage.
When Brittany was 16, in 2008, Buckels began serving as her foster mother. The teenager showed signs of trauma – she would wake up screaming and crying from nightmares and freeze if accidentally touched, her mother recalled.
As part of her healing process, Brittany has worked with Buckels to educate legislators and the public about human trafficking. The family has received death threats because of their advocacy, Buckels said.
Former state Senator Maggie Tinsman, who drafted Iowa’s first human trafficking law in 2006, said traffickers benefit from the idea that “it doesn’t happen here.” She said the crime is facilitated in Iowa by major interstates such as I-80 and I-35, as well as large rural areas that allow traffickers to hide their activity. Cases involving underage girls have been prosecuted in locations including Williamsburg, Denison, Coralville and Decorah.
Over three weeks from late February to March, Davenport-based Braking Traffik found 304 Quad Cities escort ads on www.backpage.com. Tinsman said that based on the appearance of women photographed and the ads’ wording, “we suspect 44 percent of the women were under 18.”
Chicago native Tina Frundt said she was first sold for sex as a 9-year-old foster child. Boys were victimized alongside her. “We told people what was happening, but no one believed us,” she recalled.
At 15, she was arrested for prostitution. “No one told me I was a victim.”
Frundt went on to found Courtney’s House, which serves survivors of sex trafficking in an area including Washington, D.C., northern Virginia and southern Maryland.
She offered insight to social-service providers and law enforcement professionals about the mindset of traffickers and survivors. “Don’t ask her about the pimp — she thinks he’s her boyfriend. Ask about the buyers. We had no love for them,” Frundt said.
Human trafficking often occurs along with crimes that can be easier to identify, like domestic violence, child abuse or prostitution, said Marissa Castellanos of Kentucky Rescue and Restore.
She said sex trafficking happens at places including truck stops, strip clubs, Asian massage parlors and nail salons. Labor trafficking occurs in the domestic service and housekeeping industry, restaurants, farms, factories and elsewhere. “We have noticed it happening in what seems like legitimate businesses.”
There are signs. “Maybe you’ll observe that your waiter seems really fearful of the owner. Or the woman doing your nails — it’s not that she doesn’t speak English. It’s that she’s looking over her shoulder all the time to see if someone’s watching her —to yell at her for talking to you.”
Castellanos suggested carrying cards imprinted with nothing but the national human trafficking hotline number, (888) 373-7888. Slip a card to a suspected victim and suggest he or she call the number for help. Notify police especially if you can get more information, such as the license plate number of a car associated with suspected trafficking.
Brian Endrizal, an FBI special agent, advised conference attendees to keep an eye on activity in their neighborhoods and to monitor their children’s Internet and cell phone use.
“Be in your kids’ business,” he said. “If you’re not involved, someone else will be.”
“We now have more tools in our human trafficking prevention tool kit, and let’s use them,” Nora Dvorak said after the conference. A volunteer in the diocese’s social action department, she helped plan the event.
For more information, visit www.polarisproject.org.