Newton Teens Against Human Trafficking and Newton Says No to Human Trafficking are partnering to host an awareness event Wednesday at the Newton High School auditorium. Human Trafficking: An Iowa Perspective is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. and will feature videos and a Q&A discussion.
Mike Ferjak, retired director of human trafficking enforcement and prosecution at the Iowa Department of Justice, will lead the conversation at the event. The intended audience is teens and their parents, but everyone is welcome to attend.
Co-founder of Newton Says No to Human Trafficking Linda Pierce helped organize the event. She said human trafficking is a multi-billion dollar business that can happen anywhere and exists in Iowa.
“We want to bring awareness that human trafficking does exist,” Pierce said. “We also want people to learn the signs of human trafficking so if they see something they should say something.”
NHS student Katherine Thorpe is involved with Newton Teens Against Human Trafficking. Her eyes were opened to the atrocities of human trafficking last October, when lead program specialist for Teens Against Human Trafficking Shannon Schott visited Thorpe’s church youth group.
“Prior to Shannon’s presentation I knew close to nothing about human trafficking,” Thorpe said. “I became extremely interested in spreading the word when I realized the amount of people my age involved in trafficking worldwide.”
Pierce took the initiative of inviting Schott to speak to the Sacred Heart Catholic Church youth group, which sparked the creation of Newton Teens Against Human Trafficking. The high school group is comprised of about 20 students.
Pierce, along with retired educator Lynn Keller, learned about human trafficking five years ago and have attended workshops across the state. They were shocked to learn some startling facts and saw a social and moral need to inform the public.
In an effort to organize, Pierce and Keller invited community leaders to an informational meeting. Wes Breckenridge, police lieutenant and current state representative, was part of the group. Ferjak presented the horrors of trafficking, and Newton Says No to Human Trafficking was born. The group has been meeting monthly since October 2014.
“I have learned that Iowans are compassionate and willing to help,” Ferjak said. “I have also learned that law enforcement at all levels in our state has the desire to do something but lack the necessary resources.”
Ferjak said Teens Against Human Trafficking is an extremely important program because it offers one of the few proactive preventative responses to fighting against trafficking.
“It is also unique because instead of just visiting a school, delivering a program and then leaving, it is establishing a relationship with that school’s administration, staff and student body that remains visible on a daily basis,” Ferjak said.
In addition to establishing a relationship with the school, Ferjak said the teen group is important because it engages the highest-risk population, minors, as both the focus of its educational effort and part of the solution through peer-to-peer counseling, training and support.
Thorpe aims to make people more aware of the issue at Wednesday’s event.
“Many victims become involved in trafficking through friends and family whom they initially trusted,” Thorpe said. “Because of this, it is important that people are aware of and understand tactics and methods used by traffickers today.”
Ferjak said the single biggest lesson he learned about human trafficking is that it exists in Iowa.
“We’ve been conditioned to believe that it isn’t here and only happens in large population areas, and that simply is not the truth,” he said.
The size of the problem in Iowa can only be estimated, and current estimates are not very strong, Ferjak said. According to the retired Justice Department official, the only way to quantify the problem in Iowa is if the state actively engages it in the same way it determines the extent of any other criminal activity.
“That takes resources, personnel, support mechanisms, ways to effectively care for the child and adult survivors and more,” Ferjak said. “And that all takes money and it takes political will and community support to stand and say we do not accept this and make it a true priority.”
Human Trafficking: An Iowa Perspective is an example of the community standing up and making it a priority, he said.
Contact Justin Jagler at 641-792-3121 ext 6532 or email@example.com