DUBUQUE (KWWL) -
Sex trafficking is alive and thriving in Iowa, and state senators are expected to take up proposed legislation on Thursday that would help crack down on the problem.
Among other provisions, the bill would increase penalties for pimps and allow Iowa's legal system to see minors involved with prostitution as victims, not criminals.
Current Iowa law prosecutes juveniles charged with prostitution, but this proposed legislation would allow county attorneys to, instead, turn the minor over to the Iowa Department of Human Services as a child in need of assistance.
Joy Jager is a sexual assault advocate with the Riverview Center, which is based in Dubuque but serves more than a dozen counties throughout eastern Iowa and the tri-state area.
"These children are victims of someone who is taking the power and control from them," Jager said. "When we charge them as prostitutes, then we're re-victimizing them and compounding the trauma that they've already been going through."
For most people, US Highway 20 is just a quick way to get from Point A to Point B. For countless young girls and boys each year, however, it serves as a trafficking route, taking them far from home.
"It's here. It's here to stay," Jager said, of sex trafficking. "It's happening in small communities. It's not just out of Chicago. It's not just out of our large communities. It's very hidden and very underground."
Jager said hundreds of Iowa teens are reported missing each month, many of whom are classified as runaways.
"Unfortunately, they're easy targets for the people who would entice them and groom them and put them out onto our streets and sell them," Jager said.
Dubuque police chief Mark Dalsing said sex trafficking and prostitution are difficult crimes to investigate.
"In some of the major cities, you have the sex trafficking that is very visible. It's out on the street corners, literally, and it's something we haven't had in Dubuque for a long time," Dalsing said. "We have had some public places, but with the advent of the Internet, pretty much everything's gone electronic and high-tech over the last 10 years.
"There are so many web pages out there," Dalsing said. "Craigslist was one of the primary ones until they had people get murdered based on the information that's out there, so there have been other ones that have popped up. You know, Backpages is just a duplicate of Craigslist. There are some that aren't even trying to hide it."
Casey Klein is an advocate and educator with the Dubuque Justice League, a group formed in August that works to end all human slavery, including sex trafficking.
"Is it on the uprise? All we can say is that we're working closely with local authorities," Klein said, of sex trafficking.
She said parents should play an active role in keeping their kids safe.
"Number one: where are your children? What are you doing to monitor their Facebook page?" Klein said. "They're at the mall. Do you know that the mall is the number one grooming station for pimps?"
Advocates recommend reporting any situation that looks suspicious.
"Who's coming into the communities? The properties that are rental properties: are they heavily trafficked by males?" Jager listed. "Do you see someone who should be of school age that isn't attending school that is always accompanied by an adult male or female - that would be the handler."
There have been two convictions of prostitution in Dubuque since 2012, Dalsing said, but that is simply the tip of the iceberg, advocates say.
The University of Dubuque is holding a free and public seminar on human trafficking. Teresa Downing-Matibag, executive director of The Network Against Human Trafficking (NAHT), will speak about human rights violations and how this modern-day slavery can be stopped. Her lecture will begin at 6 p.m. on Thurs., April 3, in Blades Chapel on the University of Dubuque campus.
For support, click HERE to access the Riverview Center's website.
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