Sex trafficking issue strikes close to home

Documentary: Trafficking happens in all states and all types of communities

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Randy Kuhlman, chief executive officer of the Fort Dodge Community Foundation and United Way, addresses the crowd Saturday before the showing of “Gridshock” a documentary produced by a native Iowan that focuses on human trafficking. Around 100 people attended the event at the Laramar Ballroom.

It can happen here. It is happening here.

That was the most important message out of many that came from a town hall meeting Saturday at the Laramar Ballroom focusing on human trafficking.

The event, set up by the Safe Communities Coalition, drew about 100 people.

It began with a 50-minute documentary by a native Iowan and concluded with a question-and-answer session.

The documentary, “Gridshock,” was produced by Vanessa McNeal, a survivor of sexual violence. It focuses on three women who are survivors of trafficking and how they were manipulated by people in their lives and not by outsiders.

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From left, Ray Fiedler, Amber Lawrence and Julee Wilson were panelists for a question-and-answer session after the viewing of the documentary “Gridshock” at the Laramar Ballroom Saturday. The trio has a hands-on perspective that comes from working with those who have been trafficked, according to Randy Kuhlman, chief executive officer of the Fort Dodge Community Foundation and United Way.

It also emphasizes how sex trafficking is happening in small towns across Iowa, not just bigger communities.

The film also delves into how law enforcement struggles to deal with the problem and touches on those who are on the other side of the issue, people paying money for individuals that have been trafficked.

“We are happy with the turnout,” said Jeanette Potter, safe communities coordinator of the Safe Communities Coalition. “It’s probably a little more than we expected. We were a little disappointed we didn’t get a younger demographic. But who we had here is great. We are just so grateful for the community’s support.”

Randy Kuhlman, chief executive officer of the Fort Dodge Community Foundation and United Way, said human trafficking is a scourge that negatively impacts people. He said he hoped people would come and learn about the topic, which they may not know a lot about.

The majority of criminal activity in human trafficking goes unreported. The victims are trying to extricate themselves from the power imbalance, and fear being arrested for prostitution if they contact law enforcement officials.

Kuhlman said “Gridshock” is a great way to frame the trafficking topic for people. McNeal on her website notes that while she’s proud of the documentary, it is a difficult topic and can trigger some people as they hear the first-hand details of sex trafficking survivors from Iowa.

Kuhlman warned those in attendance that the documentary could be difficult for some to watch and encouraged anyone that felt the need to step out of the viewing area to do so.

The question-and-answer session was led by Ray Fiedler, coordinator for the state Office to Combat Human Trafficking, and two counselors who work with victims and survivors. One was Julee Wilson, who serves Webster County as the domestic violence abuse advocate through Crisis Intervention Services along with Amber Lawrence, who has been involved in the fight against human trafficking since 2010. She is currently a licensed mental health therapist for teenagers.

Kuhlman said the trio has a hands-on perspective that comes from working with those who have been trafficked.

People may erroneously think sex trafficking only takes place in large cities. However, according to the Blue Campaign, a national public awareness campaign devoted to preventing human trafficking, it is a problem everywhere, in all 50 states, including rural communities.

According to a report by the Iowa Office to Combat Human Trafficking, there were 71 human trafficking tips and leads received by the agency in 2023.

Law enforcement authorities report that trafficking victims are often teenage girls and young women. Young men are also victimized by sex traffickers, with LGBTQ people particularly vulnerable. The traffickers often aim for people on the margins of society, since those who are poor, are runaways or who have mental health or substance abuse issues can be vulnerable to control.

“We can’t fix a problem that we don’t want to acknowledge so I think it’s so important to get these types of things out there just for awareness,” said Potter. “That was part of the reason that I wanted to hold this here and have local people sitting on the panel so that people can see they are working with victims and survivors here in our town.”

According to information given to those in attendance, less than one percent of sex trafficking in the United States is stranger abduction. Most victims are trafficked by someone they know and trust.

In 2021, Iowa received nine trafficking reports per 100,000 people. If only one percent of survivors are identified, then an estimated 8,600 people in Iowa are victims of human trafficking each year.

Both the documentary and the panelists agreed that demand is one factor that drives trafficking. If there was no one seeking to “purchase” individuals, the industry would not exist. However, both the documentary and the panelist agreed that is a huge obstacle to overcome.

Several attendees submitted questions for the panel and a lot focused on funding at the state level to combat trafficking. Fiedler said in a perfect world, there would be funding that allowed agencies to focus solely on trafficking. But he admitted at current funding levels, that’s not possible.

“I would like lawmakers to know that even small towns need help with this,” said Potter. “Small communities are in need of help and assistance more and more.”


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