CHADRON – A diverse panel featuring a forensic examiner, an attorney, a Salvation Army Outreach Coordinator, and a sex trafficking survivor all contributed poignant facts and emotional accounts to the annual Chadron State College Social Work (SW 435) conference Wednesday, Nov. 1, at the Student Center Ballroom.
The conference, “Not for Sale: Sex Trafficking in Nebraska and Surrounding Areas,” featured presentations from Hollie Strand, Federico Vicente, and Joseph Smith, two performances from CSC Theatre students, and a moving video detailing sex trafficking and sexual abuse from “Kelly,” a woman who survived sex trafficking.
The difficult subject matter did not deter attendance. Professor Bruce Hoem, who mentors the senior Social Work students who organize the conference, said more than 250 people attended.
“I’ve never had a conference that held so many people all day long. I was really amazed,” Hoem said. “This conference on sex trafficking was hard work. It was not a pleasant topic for the students, and they knew that going into it. They could have backed out, but they pushed forward with it. In the end, I believe it had to be one of the best conferences we have ever had on this campus. They made a difference. I could not be more proud of them.”
According to the Women’s Fund of Omaha’s report on Nebraska’s Commercial Sex Market, 900 individuals are sold for sex, often multiple times, in Nebraska each month. And one in five individuals sold for sex in Nebraska is sold in multiple markets across the state.
Sex trafficking, according to Vicente, the Salvation Army’s SAFE-T Community Outreach Coordinator, is the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act, in which the commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud or coercion.
Vicente said any minor under the age of 18 induced into commercial sex is a victim of sex trafficking in Nebraska.
“Sex trafficking is the second fastest growing criminal enterprise and it’s a $150 billion industry” Vicente said. “Fifty percent of its victims are children.”
Vicente said a majority of trafficking happens in eastern Nebraska, particularly Omaha and Lincoln, but the western end has 15 reported cases in North Platte and 10 in Scottsbluff.
“The Nebraska map of sex trafficking follows Interstate 80,” he said.
Vicente said anyone can be trafficked, but he noted marginalized populations are at a higher risk because traffickers exploit vulnerabilities.
He urged all Nebraskans to combat sex trafficking by learning more about it.
“Forty-nine percent of people in Nebraska cite lack of knowledge about services available for sex trafficking and sex trafficking victims,” he said.
Vicente said survivors of sex trafficking have many continuing needs, including safe houses, substance treatment, health care and peer support.
While Vicente spoke on the subject of sex trafficking itself, Strand, a Computer Forensic Examiner for the Pennington County Sheriff’s Office, spoke about online dangers for children in her morning presentation and child sexual abuse in the afternoon session.
Strand gave several examples of online areas of concern, including mobile apps and secret social media accounts. She also encouraged conference attendees to never share electronics or wireless internet.
“I don’t give my phone to my kids because it’s a tool,” she said. “You wouldn’t give the keys to your car to your child, so don’t let them use your phone.”
She said the best way to protect children is to maintain supervision and teach about online dangers.
“The internet is the gateway for sex trafficking and we need to be the gatekeepers,” she said.
Smith, an attorney for Madison County in Nebraska, spoke about “Prosecution and Sex Trafficking.”
A panel of professionals who have experience with sex trafficking, crimes against children and assault closed the conference. The panel consisted of presenters Smith, Strand and Vicente, as well as County Judge Russell Harford, DOVES Program Coordinator for Dawes and Sheridan County Nicole Keller, and Scottsbluff State Patrol Criminal Investigator Cassie Wegelin.
Dr. Carolyn Winchester, Superintendent of Chadron Public Schools, was the conference’s Master of Ceremony.
In conference materials, the Social Work senior students thanked the college, community and speakers who helped make the conference possible. The students also encouraged attendees to say something if they see sex trafficking happening by calling the Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888 or texting HELP or INFO to 233733.
—Alex Helmbrecht, Director of College Relations