By GRANT SCHULTE
LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Nebraska officials are taking new steps to reduce the market for human trafficking, stop traffickers and help their victims, Attorney General Doug Peterson said Tuesday.
The new approach will focus on prosecuting traffickers and johns rather than the survivors - some of them underage teenagers - who were lured into the sex trade and kept in place with violence or coercion.
Peterson pointed to a case from five years ago involving 13- and 15-year-old girls who were plied with alcohol and a place to sleep, then photographed for online sex ads in the Omaha area.
“I want people to understand that this can happen on a very small scale, and the human tragedy is the still the same,” Peterson said.
Peterson announced that his office and the Salvation Army have received a $1.5 million federal grant for a new state task force to address the problem. The Salvation Army will receive $900,000 to provide services to victims, and the attorney general’s office will get $600,000 to help different regions of the state establish response plans for cases of human trafficking.
Officials from various public and private groups will work to spread awareness of human trafficking in Nebraska. They also will help train people how to recognize and respond to cases of human trafficking. The effort includes state, federal and local law enforcement, the court system, the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, Native American tribes and private groups.
Stephen O’Meara, the attorney general’s human trafficking coordinator, said the task force is part of an effort to become more proactive in stopping exploitation.
“Traffickers move into human trafficking, even from drug trafficking, because they see that the benefit is at least as high, but they perceive the risk to be much lower,” O’Meara said. “We have to change that.”
O’Meara said state officials will do more to pursue johns in an effort to reduce demand for illegal sex acts. They also plan to look at factors that make a person more likely to fall victim to traffickers, he said. Saving a human trafficking victim isn’t enough to add the problem because traffickers will usually just find another victim, he said.
Peterson, who took office in January, has made human trafficking one of his top legislative priorities. Lawmakers and Gov. Pete Ricketts approved legislation in May that increased criminal penalties for pimps and allowed prosecutors to seize their property.
An organization working to end human trafficking gave Nebraska a D last year for its policies in helping stop the illegal practice. That grade was an improvement from the F it received from Shared Hope International in 2011.