Human trafficking from the eyes of a survivor

October 7, 2013, 1:01 am

By HEATHER MURSCHEL

SPEARFISH, S.D. (AP) — As a form of modern-day slavery, those involved in prostitution in South Dakota are most likely victims of human trafficking and sexual exploitation.

"This is a real problem in South Dakota. It's happening right here in our own communities and it's time we take our head out of the sand and do something about it," Susan Omanson told the attendees of the South Dakota Corrections Association's fall conference this week, held in Spearfish at Black Hills State University.

Omanson is the founder and director of BE FREE, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the elimination of all forms of human bondage, slavery, exploitation and trafficking. She is also the trainer for the Faith Alliance Against Sex Trafficking, an international organization that supports training caregivers of sex trafficking and exploitation survivors.

Omanson concentrated her presentation on revealing the characteristics of women and children who are most susceptible to trafficking, as well as where assailants find their victims, how they sexually exploit them and what people can do to reduce these horrors, the Black Hills Pioneer reported ( ).

"I'm sure in your line of work that you have either witnessed this happening, or know someone who has," Omanson said. "For the victims, vulnerability plays a huge role because they are either living in poverty and need the money, homeless or looking for someone to promise them a better life."

South Dakota U.S. State's Attorney Brendan Johnson relayed a message to the attendees that made it perfectly clear that the Dakotas "are not immune" and the crime itself has become more of a "home grown" issue that zeros in on women and children who live on various reservations.

So what is the driving factor behind human trafficking, especially when it comes to sexually exploiting women and young children? It's simple . human trafficking is big money and victims are initially tricked into believing that a percentage of that money earned will go to them allowing them to create a better life for themselves.

Victims of pimp-controlled sex trafficking are commonly forced to meet quotas of $500 to $1,000 a night. Therefore, victims working a truck stop typically earn between $5 and $100 per sex act, and the pimp confiscates those earnings.

With those numbers in mind, if you take each victim making $1,000 and multiply it throughout the year, Omanson said the pimps end up making a ". huge sum of money by prostituting and exploiting these victims."

After sharing a video of victims speaking out, one said the women who are at risk the most are ones who have come from broken families, live in poverty or looking for a way out of a bad situation. The strong-willed and educated women who seem to have "it all together" are least likely to become a victim.

"The poorest counties in the country are located on the reservations in South Dakota and those living in poverty are most likely to become a victim, especially if they consider themselves as throwaways or runaways," Omanson said. "A lot of victims were also abused regularly in their home, or have been broken sexually and don't know that they are even a victim."

Victims are enticed by nice clothes and empty promises and then forced into sexual exploitation. And stay because they are either addicted to drugs, too emotionally defeated to have the strength to leave, or they don't have the resources available to seek treatment or care if they do leave, Omanson explained.

This, she said, matters because women and girls in prostitution suffer extremely high rates of violence and trauma, and these experiences make it very difficult for them to even return to a healthy lifestyle and oftentimes they encompass disassociation disorder as a coping mechanism.

They are starved, confined, beat, gang raped regularly, threatened with violence, forced to use drugs and face numerous health risks, like traumatic brain injuries, broken bones, internal injuries and often suffer from traumatic bonding, a form of coercive control where the victim is filled with both fear and gratitude for being allowed to live.

The biggest one is PTSD as many victims have layers upon layers of emotional abuse, and have essentially created another identity for themselves, this is sometimes referred to as "multiple personalities," Omanson explained.

So where does human trafficking occur?

Omanson said "anywhere" and "everywhere" but there are a few key locations and situations in South Dakota and even Johnson confirmed that because there are certain situations where there are "large gatherings of men" essentially creates a market.

Human traffickers find their victims in situations where there are a large percentage of men in one area. In South Dakota a lot of trafficking occurs at the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally where an estimated 400,000 males are in the Black Hills for a couple of weeks, as well as in communities that experience an influx of hunters in the fall and winter.

Other places that are rife with sexual exploitation, especially of teens, include truck stops, malls, social networking sites, and even high schools throughout South Dakota — Omanson explained she has dealt with cases of human trafficking in all of the high schools in Sioux Falls, where her offices are located.

"Women and children who are in vulnerable positions, especially in areas where there is a significant amount of males are the most at risk," she said. "Drug use is a huge issue because it's one way to hold the victim because they become addicted . and so when they do get out, they don't have the resources and end up going back so they can use again.

"Victims of trafficking often do not see themselves as victims and seek immediate help . this is due to the lack of trust, self-blame, or the training traffickers go through to make sure this doesn't happen," Omanson said.

After being brutally raped, beaten, locked up as slaves or consistently drugged to ensure they become addicted and forced to stay in their position, the emotional trauma from this consistent abuse and neglect can debilitate victims making it more difficult to get them out of this situation.

The last, and somewhat most harmful, is coercion. When a victim starts to realize that they have been trafficked and has an opportunity to get help, they will hear their captors threaten their families and loved ones, intimidate and shame them, create a climate of fear, manipulate them and cause irreversible emotional abuse that creates a dependency and fear of independence.

To reduce the number of cases, Omanson stressed the importance of creating public awareness, training law enforcement officials and first responders to recognize the signs and how to protect more victims from entering into the world.

"Stop criminalizing the victims," Omanson said. "Increase access to culturally appropriate housing and holistic care for victims known as a restoration center and hold the perpetrators accountable."

She said to "stop the demand" and make changes to increase efforts to combat trafficking through legislation and providing victim protection and services.

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Information from: Black Hills Pioneer,

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