Clinton volunteers work to end human trafficking in the area

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CLINTON, Iowa (KWQC) - Human trafficking happens in every state across the U.S., but many say it’s hard to believe it’s happening in our communities.

Experts say the underground nature of human trafficking keeps many people unaware of just how common it is.

In 2017, 74 cases involving sex trafficking in Iowa were reported to the National Human Trafficking Hotline according to the NHTH. Illinois saw more, with 193 cases reported.

Volunteers with the Franciscan Peace Center in Clinton want to help. They're sharing information with their community to help others open their eyes to the crime and save lives.

"We're not too far from the Quad Cities, not too far from Iowa City, not too far from Chicago. The average person looking for sex with a young individual or anybody, will travel an hour a half to find it,” says Ray Hilgendorf, a trained volunteer on human trafficking with the Franciscan Peace Center. “Make a little circle around Clinton, Iowa and it takes up a large distance. This is not just a national problem. It's a local problem."

Human trafficking is a $150 billion industry. An estimated 25 million victims are trapped in what is called 'the modern day slavery'.

"You kind of hear this for the first time and you think, 'what? Is that really true?' Well, it is," says Hilgendorf.

Volunteers with the Franciscan Peace Center to educate the community on how young people are increasingly vulnerable.

"For instance, you get these men that pose maybe as a 13/14-year-old girl online, and they set up times to meet with this young person they've befriended,” says Lori Freudenberg, Community Outreach Director for the Franciscan Peace Center. “Kids can be so trusting and naive, thinking that everyone they meet online is telling the truth, but then they go and meet these people and they get them to do things they wouldn’t normally do."

Online trafficking is huge. According to the Coalition of Human Trafficking, 393 persons are advertised each month on the internet. Threats against friends or family members are used to get the victim's cooperation.

"They take pictures of them and hold them hostage in terms of saying 'you can do now what I tell you to do or I will turn these pictures over to your families and friends, I’ll ruin your reputation’, and that gets young girls and more and more young boys to participate in that way of life."

The volunteers out of Clinton hold talks and training to help others spot tell-tale signs of a trafficking situation. 75% of which happen in hotels and motels.

"According to the statistics, it’s a really fertile place for this to happen. So we need to go out there as citizens and people who care to make the hotels and their employees aware of what to look for,” Hilgendorf. “If they see something say something and report to the authorities if they think something isn’t right."

It’s happening under hotel roofs, but Freudenberg says the fault is elsewhere.

"It’s the buyers' fault. We call them a buyer, but they're actually committing sexual assault."

And preventing it is a community effort.

"I think it’s a calling for everyone,” says Hilgendorf. “It’s here, right now. Actively working against the good of all people, because there’s no one is benefiting from this except the ones perpetrating the crimes through young individuals."