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IOWA'S HUMAN TRADE: Investigating and preventing human trafficking

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Nearly 800,000 American children go missing each year. That's more than 2,000 children each day. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reports most are runaways, others are abducted by family members, and a growing a number of children are kidnapped.

"It can happen to anybody, it can happen to anyone," Heather Collins said.

Collins' daughter, 9-year-old Elizabeth, and niece, 11-year-old Lyric Cook, were abducted from Evansdale four months ago. Her husband, Drew Collins, recounts the day it happened.

"It seems like someone knew what they were doing. They were watching them for a while and just came in and they were gone," Drew Collins said. 

What little information remained of Lyric and Elizabeth's disappearance was investigated and processed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation. Gerard Meyers, Special Agent in Charge of the Crime Against Children's Task Force, has been a part of the investigation since the beginning.

"There was some information that we found on the computers but I'm not at liberty to speak to that. It was definitely a successful result, but it wasn't a smoking gun or we would have the case closed. But it's definitely resulted in a significant number of leads," Meyers said.

The main focus of the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation's Crime Against Children's Task Force is investigating digital communication between children and potential abductors. Special Agent Meyer's department is trying to discover whether abductions in Iowa are part of a bigger problem - child trafficking.

"When I started back in 2004, I didn't know there would be any child trafficking in the state of Iowa," Meyers said. "I've been surprised in that regard." Founder and President Tony Nassif says the problem of child trafficking is real, and it's here in Iowa. For fifteen years he's taken his message across the country.

"It's a business, human trafficking, sexual exploitation of women and children, men for that matter. It's the second largest money maker in the world next to illegal drugs," Nassif said. "We always think of human trafficking in third world countries, or an abduction somewhere else but it's here in the U.S. Florida is a hot spot but Iowa has had its problems."

Case and point, in Iowa City a child sex trafficking ring was busted in September of this year. Investigators say three teenagers were coerced from their homes and brought to Chicago to be part of child porn and prostitution ring. Two people have been arrested and charged in the case, Malik McKee and Shuntina McKee.

Mike Ferjak is an investigator with the Iowa Attorney General's office and works alongside Special Agent Meyers in the Crimes Against Children Task Force.

"The Iowa City case is a text book case of human trafficking," Ferjak said. "We are probably a conduit for trafficking, how much it happens in Iowa is yet to be determined."

Special Agent Meyers takes it even farther.

"Our statistical increase over the last year, one calendar year, tips have gone up 308 percent," Meyers said.

Tips and suspicion have increased, but not specific cases. The data is skewed since investigators can't determine if a child is a victim of human trafficking until they have evidence to prove it. But Iowa does have all that's necessary for the enterprise to thrive: Children who believe they're safe, and several major roadways that cross state lines.

"The challenge for us in a child trafficking standpoint in the state of Iowa is most of it's small towns in the heartland. Kids run around safely, freely. Doors are unlocked, this provides a target rich environment for a predator to come in," Meyers said.

Even though Heather and Drew Collins don't know if their daughter and niece are victims of trafficking, nor do investigators, that won't stop them from raising awareness.

"It's time to get mad! If you have a grandson, a grand daughter, a you're an uncle or a parent, we all need to stand up and say enough is enough!" Drew Collins said.

According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children:

  • Nearly 800,000 children younger than 18 are missing each year, or an average of 2,185 children reported missing each day.
  • More than 200,000 children were abducted by family members.
  • More than 58,000 children were abducted by non family members.
  • 115 children were the victims of "stereotypical" kidnapping. These crimes involve someone the child does not know or a slight acquaintance who holds the child overnight, transports the child 50 miles or more, kills the child, demands ransom, or intends to keep the child permanently.
  • Four percent (4%) of 10 to 17 year olds received an aggressive sexual solicitation—a solicitor who asked to meet them somewhere; called them on the telephone; or sent them offline mail, money, or gifts.
  • Thirty-four percent (34%) had an unwanted exposure to sexual material —pictures of naked people or people having sex.
  • Twenty-seven percent (27%) of the youth who encountered unwanted sexual material told a parent or guardian. If the encounter was defined as distressing—episodes that made them feel very or extremely upset or afraid —forty-two percent (42%) told a parent or guardian.
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