By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger
CLINTON — A mirror in a public restroom can be more than just a place to check make-up or fix a collar. Sisters of St. Francis Human Trafficking Committee members believe it can also be used to help victims of human trafficking.
Members of the committee — which includes Sisters, lay people and Clinton County Sheriff’s Lt. Tom Paarmann — have been giving local businesses stickers with a hotline number to apply to their mirrors, in hopes that victims of human trafficking might see the number and call for rescue.
The number is easily memorized, which is helpful if the victim is passing through or does not have a phone available at the time, said Lori Freudenberg, committee co-chair. “If the victims see the number over and over again, eventually they might find themselves in a situation where it’s safe to call and get themselves rescued from the industry.”
As defined under U.S. federal law, victims of human trafficking include children involved in the sex trade, adults age 18 or over who are coerced or deceived into commercial sex acts, and anyone forced into different forms of “labor or services,” such as domestic workers held in a home, or farm-workers forced to labor against their will.
Committee members said human trafficking is an issue in Clinton. Because the city is located on a major highway and close to interstates, it is a common stopping place for trafficking operators traveling through. Additionally, committee co-chair Laura Anderson said, “There are a high number of vulnerable and at-risk youth here, maybe more so than in the Quad Cities. It feels like there’s an obligation to help protect and prevent and advocate for these potential victims.”
The toll-free hotline number connects callers to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, which provides advice, resources and help in escaping the industry. Mike Ferjack, director of the Human Trafficking Enforcement and Persecution Initiative of the Iowa Department of Justice, suggested the sticker project at a committee meeting late last year.
Because the stickers do not list 911 or police department numbers, Paarmann said victims are more likely to use them. “They won’t call 911 … they feel threatened,” he said. “They may not want to pursue charges. They just want to get out.”
Since the initiative began earlier this spring, the committee has placed more than 200 stickers on business in the Clinton area. Their primary targets are gas stations, hotels and restaurants. Sister Nancy Miller, OSF, said she found independently owned businesses to be more receptive than chains, though she would always leave a brochure and sticker in case they change their minds. She made sure owners were aware that the stickers could “save a life,” either by giving the victims a way out, or by building community awareness of the issue.
The project is funded by the Sisters of St. Francis. Recently, they raised $2,257 in donations at the Peace Soup series, which is organized by the Sisters of St. Francis and Prince of Peace Pax Christi.
Committee members report that while it is too early to tell if the stickers have been effective in Clinton, national statistics show an increase in hotline calls in areas where the stickers are being used.
Diane Black, a committee member, said she is optimistic about the sticker project’s potential to raise awareness of human trafficking as “a multi-billion dollar business,” and to offer an escape route to those involved as victims. “They need to know there is someone who can help them, and that there is hope.”