The Gateway Unpacks: Is human trafficking in Nebraska a problem or paranoia?


Anton Johnson
The Gateway Unpacks is a column that seeks to make political news, both local and national, accessible to anybody.

Human trafficking is called a “hidden crime” because of how easily it can go under the radar. How can we know when it happens, and who’s at risk? Graphic by Claire Redinger/The Gateway.

It was spring break 2021, and a plane ride was the only thing standing between Kassidy Brown and Orlando, Florida. Brown’s flight was later that day, so she stopped at the Target in Papillion, Nebraska for last minute supplies.

While sifting through Target’s assortment of purses and wallets, Brown said she noticed a woman giving her a suspicious look. The woman was accompanied by a teenage girl, and Brown “felt something off” about the pair. They didn’t look like they were related, she said, or even belonged together.

Brown said she had heard that traffickers sometimes use women to approach potential victims because they appear less threatening. Other images of human trafficking rushed through her head.

Brown moved to a different area of the store to look at shoes. The pair followed. She moved to look at clothes. The pair followed. Brown had texted her boyfriend that she felt uncomfortable. Now, as her heart started to race, she decided to call him.

“This did not seem normal,” Brown said. “My anxiety was through the roof.”

Eventually Brown spoke to an employee, and she was escorted through the checkout and to her car. She let her family know and decided to move on, and try and enjoy her trip.

Brown said she wasn’t sure whether or not she was really at risk of being trafficked, but she had seen other similar experiences on the social media platform Tik Tok.

“I saw another video on my ‘For You’ page of a girl saying it seems like Target has now become a trafficking hub,” Brown said. “And I’m like, ‘oh my god, the same thing probably happened to me.’”

Brown posted a video on Tik Tok about the experience which went viral. It received nearly seven million views and spurred a conversation about human trafficking.

Many viewers voiced their support, commenting that Brown acted appropriately. Brown said a few women even messaged her about similar close calls they had.

Other commenters said the way she reacted was “irresponsible.” One simply replied, “So you’re paranoid.”

But Brown said she trusted her gut instinct and removed herself from the situation. Teresa Kulig, a criminology professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, said that was the right move.

What is human trafficking?

“A straight abduction from a store is not something that I see very often,” Kulig said. “But I do see stories of traffickers connecting with people in stores in that way.”

The stereotypical image of human trafficking, that may include a person bound in handcuffs and thrown in the back of a van, can be misleading. While cases like that can happen, the majority of incidents are much harder to spot.

“If people are taking that stereotype of what they think trafficking looks like,” Kulig said. “Then they’re looking at their own experience and saying ‘That’s not what mine looks like so it must not be trafficking.’”

Human trafficking is the use of “force, fraud, or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act,” according to the Department of Homeland Security.

The legal definition for trafficking can vary, Kulig said. The Trafficking Victims Protection Act gave a federal definition for both labor and sex trafficking in the U.S., but all 50 states have their own definitions.

“There is a lot of inconsistency, and that varies from state to state,” Kulig said. “So it causes a lot of confusion among citizens, among practitioners, among scholars.”

Kulig, whose research focuses on victimology as well as human trafficking, said trafficking is a “hidden crime” because even victims struggle to recognize when it’s happening.

Kulig said “psychological and emotional abuse that can keep somebody under a trafficker’s control” makes physical restraint not necessary for many offenders.

How big is the problem?

“There is this huge, wide range of numbers,” Kulig said. “And part of that wide range is how it’s being measured.”

In 2019, Kulig co-authored an article estimating the prevalence of human trafficking in Ohio. She found several hurdles in determining an accurate number.

The International Labour Organization estimated in 2016 that over 40 million people were victims of forced labor worldwide. But Kulig said those numbers can’t be verified because they are based on surveys and projections.

The National Human Trafficking Hotline, where anybody can call and report an incident or seek help, received 48,326 contacts in 2019. 11,500 were reported as human trafficking cases.

Federal trafficking task force data suggested about 2,800 trafficking incidents were identified in the U.S. from 2008-2010, Kulig said. This is a much lower number than other sources because it only counts cases that were brought to the authorities.

Authorities don’t always identify cases as trafficking. In some cases, a victim could be classified as an offender. For example, someone who is being exploited for sex could be arrested for prostitution, Kulig said. As with other sex-related crimes, a victim will sometimes view themselves as guilty, and they’ll cover for their abuser.

What are the risks?

There are several factors that researchers have found make a person vulnerable to trafficking, Kulig said. Victims of sexual abuse are more likely to be at risk, as well as people who suffer from mental health issues and addiction.

Traffickers target those who lack strong social systems, Kulig said, like people from abusive households or people who deal with cultural or language barriers. They start a relationship with the victim that provides support and escalates into coercion.

“Human trafficking, sex trafficking specifically, really is a relationship building problem,” said Stephanie Olson, CEO of The Set Me Free Project.

The Set Me Free Project is a non-profit organization that educates people in Nebraska and Iowa on the risks of human trafficking and how to prevent it. Olson said that determining whether or not a relationship is healthy is a crucial step in prevention.

“The biggest misconception is that it’s about force and kidnapping,” Olson said. “When really it’s about fraud and coercion.”

There has been a 40% increase in reported trafficking cases since the onset of the pandemic, which Olson said can at least partially be attributed to increased education and awareness.

The Set Me Free Project hosts education programs for schools and businesses. For college students, they focus on recognizing red flags in relationships, being mindful of fake job offers, and staying safe on social media.

Social media is one of the number one ways traffickers find victims, and social media usage has been higher during the pandemic, Olson said.

Only 1-2% of trafficking victims are recovered, Olson said. That’s why the Set Me Free Project focuses on prevention and partners with other organizations who focus on recovery and treatment for victims.

“Prevention really is about community-wide working together,” Olson said. “That includes prevention, restoration, and recovery, and that includes a lot of people.”

The end of human trafficking

In 2015, Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson established the Nebraska Human Trafficking Task Force (NHTTF) to “coordinate the state’s response to human trafficking.” NHTTF works with law enforcement and regional teams across the state.

Human trafficking prosecutions in Nebraska have risen since the task force was created, up to 22 in 2020 according to NHTTF. Additionally, legislation passed in recent years has strengthened the state’s efforts to prosecute trafficking cases.

In 2020, the NHTTF shifted its focus to investigation and prosecution. In the past, the task force partnered with service providers that served victims of trafficking. A new group, Nebraska Partnership Against the Trafficking of Humans (NE PATH), was formed to fill that role instead.

Despite increased education and legislation, conspiracy theories have dominated the conversation around human trafficking in recent years. Kulig said that although it’s raised awareness, “it causes a lot of confusion.”

Kulig said people should seek out information or help from reputable sources, like the Polaris Project or the National Human Trafficking Hotline.

Human trafficking is a hidden crime that can only be uncovered through awareness and education. Kulig said more research needs to be done, especially in rural areas like Nebraska.

“Even if we have awareness campaigns, those campaigns might not be making their way to rural communities,” Kulig said.

Brown said she posted her video to raise awareness that trafficking can happen in a place like Papillion, where “nothing seems to happen ever.”

Concerns about trafficking should be taken seriously, even if they’re only close calls, Brown said. Critics don’t need to “throw their two cents in” with unhelpful comments.

“I did what I thought was necessary in the moment,” Brown said. “I would hate for [a survivor] to have their situation invalidated like that.”