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Human trafficking: Volunteers help local coalition start up Hotel/Motel Project


One of the important ways to combat human trafficking is raising awareness that the problem does exist in this area and providing education to help spot the signs.

Julie Elbert, clinical director and therapist at Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Sioux City and board member of the Siouxland Coalition Against Human Trafficking (SCAHT), pointed out that given most sex trafficking occurs in hotels and motels, creating awareness in that industry is vital.

“Staff members of these establishments are on the front line. They have the greatest opportunity to see and report trafficking,” she said. “If they can report what they see, in the end, victims will get the opportunity to escape and get help.”

The local coalition recently hosted a training session for 35 volunteers to help with the Hotel/Motel Project. The board, chaired by Bernadette Rixner and Linda Holub, went through the training about a year ago. In turn, the goal is to have the volunteers train staff of motels and hotels in Sioux City, South Sioux City and North Sioux City.

“We have been interested in utilizing the Hotel/Motel Project in the Siouxland area for several years,” noted Elbert. “It is a big commitment, training teams of volunteers, reaching out to all of the hotels and motels in the area, and presenting the training to all of the staff.”

Because SCAHT realized they didn’t have enough manpower to do this all alone, Elbert said Junior League of Sioux City offered to be a project sponsor, coordinating the volunteer trainings, tracking data, ensuring the program is implemented correctly and follow-up. The local group also partnered with The Coalition on Human Trafficking, Inc., which created the project and Iowa Network Against Human Trafficking and Slavery.

“The idea is to train hotel and motel staff to recognize signs of human trafficking in their facility,” she said. “With their help, victims of human trafficking could have an opportunity to either seek help or be rescued.”

While the coalition does not want the motel/hotel staff to put themselves at risk, what they do want is for the workers to keep their eyes and ears open and, if necessary, contact law enforcement.

“Victims of trafficking often are in the company of a controlling person, male or female,” Elbert noted. “This person keeps the victims identifying documents, not allowing the victim to leave. Often, the person speaks on behalf of the victim, making the reservations, deciding when they arrive and when they leave.”

Some may erroneously assume human trafficking and prostitution mean the same thing. However, prostitution is defined as a person willingly exchanging sex for money. Sex trafficking happens when a commercial sex act takes place through force, fraud or coercion by a trafficker. Any minor sold for sex is a victim of sex trafficking.

“Victims of trafficking are victims of exploitation,” Elbert said. “They are owned by their traffickers. They are beaten down and desperate. They suffer injury when they try to stop.”

Trafficking occurs all over Iowa, the Midwest, throughout the country and world, she noted. And victims are not always abducted. Some still live at home with their parents.

“Their trafficker has leverage over them, enabling them to force the victim to sneak out of their home at night, work as a sex slave and return to their home before their parents even know they left the house,” said Elbert. “Teens can get recruited by someone they initially trust. They end up doing something risky, like sexting, and then the trafficker uses the pictures as leverage over the victim.”

The therapist urged parents to talk to their children about exploitation.

“Parents need to talk to their kids that no matter what bad decisions they make, they can always come and tell their parents about it,” she said. “Fear of rejection from parents makes it possible for teens to get lured in by traffickers to work as sex slaves. If kids know they can tell their parents they made a dumb mistake, like sexting, they will be able to avoid being manipulated by a trafficker.”

Elbert pointed out several larger hotels have been receptive to the training. Volunteers have encountered some resistance and often find it difficult to get opportunities to speak to some of the managers. Persistence will be key in volunteers having success with the project.

Victims of trafficking may have tattoos indicating they belong to a certain “trafficker” and in the reserved room, she noted, hotel/motel staff may notice a lot of traffic going in and out of the room. When cleaning the room, the staff may notice items left behind that indicate sexual activity occurred in the room such as finding a lot of condoms in the trash.

“Victims of trafficking are vulnerable and powerless,” stressed Elbert. “It is our responsibility for those unable to advocate for themselves.”


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