Report: Most states, including Iowa, treat young people ensnared by sex trafficking as criminals rather than victims

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A new analysis of laws against the sex trafficking of minors gives most states, including Iowa, a failing grade in tackling a billion-dollar industry that for decades existed in the shadows, regarded by many as a third-world problem.

Shared Hope International, a nonprofit that focuses on the trafficking of youth and children, released its state report cards this month. Shared Hope credits states with improving since its last 10-year analysis, but still gives Fs to Iowa and 38 other states, as well as Washington, D.C.

Florida's C was the highest mark in the report, "Child & Youth Sex Trafficking: State Action. National Change. 2021." The 10 other states got Ds.

The poor grades were chiefly tied to the failure of states to see trafficking victims as exactly that — victims of a brutal trade in which youth and children are pimped out for sex with no means of escape from the frequent rapes, beatings and sometimes death.

In Iowa, the case of 17-year-old Pieper Lewis, who faces 20 years in prison after killing a man whom her attorneys contend had raped her while she was being trafficked, is focusing attention on the issue.

Pieper Lewis
Pieper Lewis

Often people don't understand — or simply deny — that sex trafficking happens in Iowa, said one of Lewis' attorneys, Paul White.

“There’s this thinking that stuff happens in Los Angeles, New York." White said. "It happens everywhere."

More: A homeless Des Moines teen who killed her alleged rapist faces 20 years in prison. She's a victim, too, her attorneys say.

Most states, according to Shared Hope International, still prosecute many victims as criminals engaged in prostitution when they do manage to escape or are "rescued." Many victims have been arrested during vice squad busts of prostitution, with law enforcement either not realizing or ignoring that they're not willingly selling their bodies.

Victims are also arrested by police as a result of robberies, fights, drug using or dealing or other crimes they commit to survive or please their captors and traffickers, advocates say.

The report says that only eight states — California, Connecticut, Florida, Maine, Minnesota, Mississippi, New Mexico and Washington state — “fully protect trafficked children from arrest, detention, charging and prosecution for prostitution offenses.”

Shared Hope acknowledges progress in the past decade. When it released its first report in 2011, just 24 states had made it a crime to traffic minors for sex; now, every state does. The organization has made its grading rubric for passing more stringent. More than a dozen states had earned A grades in 2019.

'As profitable as people not caring'

So booming is the sex-trafficking business that some drug and gun dealers are turning to sex trafficking because the money can be larger and the legal punishments less, according to the Polaris Project.

The sex trade is "more profitable, and the punishments just weren't there," when compared with drugs or guns, said Erin Marsh, research and policy specialist at Polaris. "Less arrests, less prosecutions and less convictions."

Globally, sex trafficking is thought to yield some $99 billion annually, according to a fact sheet put out by the organization Do Something. That's of about $150 billion in total human trafficking profit, which also includes labor trafficking. In the U.S., only drug trafficking is more profitable.

Robert Beiser, director of the Polaris Project's Strategic Initiative on Sex Trafficking, puts it this way: "I think trafficking is as profitable as people not caring about the victims makes it," he said.

The trade is everywhere, coast to coast, with most reports coming from densely populated cities. Nationally in 2019, the National Human Trafficking Hotline received more than 48,000 contacts, and 11,500 trafficking cases were reported. About 1,500 of those reports happened in California, followed by Texas (1,080), Florida (896), New York (454) and Ohio (450).

The Midwest is vulnerable due to the confluence of interstates and volume of transportation hubs that can help traffickers easily move victims across state lines and even internationally, experts say.

Sex or labor trafficking prosecutions can be hard to track because traffickers are often charged under different statutes for related crimes such as fraud, identity theft or financial crimes, a report from the Iowa Office to Combat Human Trafficking noted.

“Typically you will see people who meet the legal definition of a trafficking victim … charged for crimes such as prostitution or pandering or some other crime, and you will not typically see the people behind that being charged,” said Gretchen Brown-Waech, who runs the human trafficking unit inside the Iowa Attorney General's Office.

Iowa created its human trafficking law in 2006, but it's rarely used, Brown-Waech said. Since 2010, 34 people have been charged under the statute, according to court data.

'This can happen to anyone, anywhere'

As vulnerabilities stack up — lack of food, shelter, money and family support — so too do the odds of getting ensnared, Brown-Waech said.

“If we care about anything, that’s a vulnerability,” and it can be attacked by traffickers, Brown-Waech said. “I try to make people understand that this can happen to anyone, anywhere."

Victims can be anyone, but most fit a profile of being needy and having mental or other issues, such as people who are homeless or lack stable housing, without food, with substance abuse problems or in general have little income. More victims are male than the public would expect, experts say, and LGBTQ people who have been ousted from a troubled home are frequently preyed upon.

"It manifests in a variety of ways, but the anomaly case is abduction off the street where a child is kidnapped," said Shared Hope's Sarah Bendtsen Diédhiou. "The majority of cases involve someone who the child either knows, where they've met them online. … It's a boyfriend, it's a friend. It's someone that they've established some sort of communication with primarily prior to exploitation and they've been groomed and manipulated."

There is also familial trafficking, where parents or caregivers sell a child for sex.

"We also see this happening in communities where parents themselves are groomed to trade their child for sex," said Bendtsen Diédhiou, who oversees state legislative advocacy for Shared Hope.

Landlords, for example, can take advantage of parents with little economic resources, "and they groom parents to sell their child in exchange for rent."

The problem is also acute with foster care, when kids age out of the system or "go missing from care and no one's looking," and end up trading sex for survival — food, shelter, clothing and more, she said.

"There's a disparate impact racially … not because they're children of color, but because of all of the societal failures" that make them more apt to be targeted, Bendtsen Diédhiou said. That includes involvement in the juvenile justice or child welfare systems, which can make them more vulnerable to targeting and grooming, she said.

'You could check all the boxes' with Pieper Lewis

Pieper Lewis, the Des Moines girl who killed her alleged rapist when she was 15, had frequent fallouts with her adoptive mother. She ran away, moved back in, then out again. She had been placed in a shelter, lived with a sister's friend who eventually kicked her out, and was living in the common areas at Oakview Terrace Apartments in Des Moines when she says a 28-year-old man offered her a place to stay.

“You could check all the boxes when it comes to Pieper” being a victim of trafficking, said attorney Matthew Sheeley, who has been working on Lewis' case since she killed 37-year-old Zachary Brooks of Des Moines. Sheeley believes the 28-year-old pimped Lewis out to Brooks.

Originally charged with first-degree murder, Lewis pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and willful injury in June. She will be sentenced in August, and faces up to 20 years in prison.

It is this scenario — charging a girl who claims she was repeatedly raped and beaten, or putting her in a position where she feels forced to plea to a lesser charge that yields prison time — that Shared Hope's analysis is trying to correct.

When Shared Hope released its first report in 2011, just 24 states had made it a crime to traffic minors for sex; now, every state does. But too few states, Iowa included, have the needed state-level or community resources to help victims of trafficking, particularly with healing the trauma of being a sex slave, advocates say.

Worse, according to her attorneys, Lewis could also have to pay restitution of about $150,000 under Iowa law to Brooks' family.

"The question is, how much fault if any did Mr. Brooks have?" Sheeley said. "If we examine this from a negligence standpoint, could the argument be made that he is at least 51% at fault for his own death? Why should his estate recover anything? What about restitution to Pieper for being sexually assaulted?"

Under Iowa law, a 15-year-old is too young to consent to sex, making sex between Brooks and Lewis a crime.

"He was engaging in human trafficking, or he was engaging in sexual abuse," Sheeley said.

'Iowa is a tricky state'

Lewis is not alone in allegedly being trafficked and not having her alleged trafficker face legal consequences.

At least 551 potential victims of sex trafficking were served by the Crime Victim Assistance Division of the Iowa Attorney General's Office from Oct. 1, 2019, through Sept. 30, 2020.

From 2013 to 2017, the number of human trafficking reports in Iowa increased steadily, according to a report from the Iowa Office to Combat Human Trafficking. Reports decreased in 2018, increased in 2019, then fell off again in 2020.

Patrick Waymire, intelligence director of the Iowa Department of Public Safety, said he believes trafficking happened just as often in 2020, but people saw it less and reported it less as the pandemic stretched on and as attention turned to online sexual exploitation.

Patrick Waymire, assistant director of the Iowa Department of Public Safety, gives an interview to the Des Moines Register, on Sept. 14, 2021, in Des Moines.
Patrick Waymire, assistant director of the Iowa Department of Public Safety, gives an interview to the Des Moines Register, on Sept. 14, 2021, in Des Moines.

In 2019, the National Human Trafficking Hotline received 246 contacts from Iowa and 98 reported cases of sex trafficking. It is unclear how many potential victims were rescued.

"Iowa is a tricky state," said Shared Hope's Bendtsen Diédhiou. "It's tricky because it's a state that continuously introduces anti-trafficking legislation every year. And yet, somehow, either it doesn't go through … or they're continuously addressing and readdressing criminal accountability for offenders."

Iowa, other states lack services to help victims heal

One specific aspect where Iowa falls short, according to Shared Hope's report: The state gets an F for limited access to funded services to help victims recover from being trafficked.

Too few states, Iowa included, have the needed state or community resources to help victims of trafficking, particularly with healing the trauma of being a sex slave, advocates say.

"The response to trafficking has been a criminal justice response over the past 20 years," said Beiser, of the Polaris Project's Strategic Initiative on Sex Trafficking. "I think what people are seeing around the country, in many ways because of survivors adding the voices to the conversation, is that to reduce and end trafficking there has to be a massive social service response and resource response that doesn't have to do with who gets arrested."

Sheeley and White, Lewis' attorneys, say she is not receiving the care needed while awaiting sentencing. Girls in detention in Iowa have faced additional hurdles in getting care since 2014, when the state closed its only facility for girls, the Iowa Juvenile Home in Toledo. Then-Gov. Terry Branstad shuttered the facility, which had been hit with reports of staff abusing teens.

More: Editorial: Iowa has nowhere to send delinquent girls

The attorneys have been working with officials in Missouri and Texas to see if Lewis could be placed in a facility there where trafficking victims are cared for. Both states have agreed to take her, saying she fits their necessary criteria. But an agreement between the Iowa Department of Human Services and those facilities has yet to be worked out.

So, Lewis remains in the Southeast Iowa Juvenile Detention Center in Montrose. By the time of her sentencing in August, she will have been locked up two years.

Brown-Waech, the human trafficking coordinator for the Iowa Attorney General’s Office, agrees there are no real options for adequate care in Iowa.

It's this lack of options that earned most states failing grades, according to Shared Hope. States have made gains in steering minors away from the criminal justice system, they say, but drop the ball when it comes to follow-up care with community and victim-specific services outside the justice system.

“We are asking states to respond to exploited youth as victims of a serious crime," Shared Hope's statement said.

Eric Ferkenhoff is the Midwest criminal justice reporter for USA TODAY Network. Follow him at @EricFerk. Philip Joens covers breaking news for The Des Moines Register. He can be reached at 515-443-3347, at pjoens@registermedia.com or on Twitter at @Philip_Joens.

This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Many sex-trafficked youth arrested, not aided as victims, report says

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