Slavery’s Teen Foe

Lexi O’Connor

Written by Barbara Dietrich Boose
Photo by Duane Tinkey

Once upon a time there were 12 girls taking a ride in a van, but this was no trip to the park. The Big Bad Wolf was nearby: A human trafficker had somehow lured the girls, intending to sell them, repeatedly, for sex.

Fortunately, when the van stopped at a gas station, a police officer noticed fluid leaking from its back end. He made the driver open the van and rescued the girls from a nightmare.

This occurred about three years ago at a Casey’s in Ames. The fluid leaking from the van was the girls’ urine.

That story shook Lexi O’Connor to her core when she heard it at a conference on human trafficking at her church. “It was just completely jaw-dropping to know that slavery still happens,” says the now 18-year-old O’Connor, who graduated from Ankeny High School in May. “It was happening to girls and boys just like me and younger than me, yet no one was talking about it.”

O’Connor decided to change that two years ago after attending a girls’ leadership conference hosted by the Eleanor Roosevelt Center in New York. She won a prize for her idea to start a club at her school to help students learn about human trafficking. She sent out a brief e-mail message to friends and fellow church members describing
her idea.

“And all of a sudden, the attorney general’s office contacted me,” she says. Last year, her idea—which aligns with priorities of the Iowa attorney general’s office—became Teens Against Human Trafficking (TAHT), a nonprofit organization focused on raising awareness among youths, peer to peer.

“We focus on education and prevention with teenagers,” she says. “If traffickers can’t reach them because the awareness is there, that’s taking away the victim population.”

It’s a critical goal, because teens are among the most vulnerable potential victims of the crime. Their age can make them more susceptible to perpetrators who lure them with drugs, alcohol or promises of romance, money or gifts. The majority of teen trafficking victims have been abused physically or emotionally at home, putting them at even greater risk from those who offer the illusion of security and love. The Internet and social media have only exacerbated the problem.

In Iowa, the average age of victims is 13; some are as young as 8. Approximately half of trafficking victims in the United States are under age 18. Experts estimate that traffickers can make up to $250,000 per victim per year by selling them again and again for sex. Iowa is attractive to traffickers because it’s at the crossroads of several interstates with easy access to major metropolitan areas. Rural areas are not immune, however. Another advantage for traffickers is that too many Iowans, including those in law enforcement, don’t know or don’t believe the crime exists here.

“What Lexi has started and is doing needs to be nurtured and grown. She’s one of the most effective delivery mechanisms, if you will, because she’s talking to her peers and has great credibility,” says Michael Ferjak, senior criminal investigator and director of the Human Trafficking Enforcement and Prosecution Initiative of the Iowa Department of Justice and Iowa attorney general’s office. “Hers is the generation of change. Lexi is in the vanguard.”

In April last year, TAHT hosted a community forum that drew nearly 300 people, including many teens, from across the state to learn and talk about human trafficking. The organization has chapters in Ankeny and Waukee high schools, with others in the works in Iowa, Illinois and Nebraska. On April 18 this year, it sponsored a five-kilometer “Heels for Hope” walk/run in Waukee to raise awareness and money to assist local teenage victims. TAHT also received funding from the Junior League of Des Moines to produce a printed program for new teams that includes information, resources and guides for discussions, community events and education efforts. “This is a roadmap to a revolution,” the program states. “This is a call to change.”

In addition, the organization recently adopted a new website URL that reflects its mission: “Teenagers are always told to be quiet, but this is such a large issue, let’s get angry about it,” O’Connor says. “Our brothers and sisters are being trafficked. It’s not OK.”

O’Connor and her mother, Mary O’Connor, are working with TAHT’s board of directors to build greater sustainability in the organization, including hiring an executive director. A fundraising event July 23 at West End Salvage will feature local musicians including Jason Walsmith of The Nadas, Bonne Finken and Mary McAdams.

O’Connor acknowledges the challenge of managing the organization’s growth and future, given she’s planning to attend New York University this fall. The move won’t end her engagement in the issue, however. “I would love for there to not be a need for the organization at all, because that would mean trafficking wouldn’t exist. … I’ll stop working when the traffickers stop working and these teens aren’t on the street any more,” she says. “They’re having their rights taken away from them, and that’s not fair. It’s not fair that I get to be sitting here and there’s probably a girl 20 minutes away who’s having to have sex with at least seven strangers tonight. That keeps me going.”

So does the fact that, as O’Connor emphasizes, so many people and organizations are supporting TAHT.

“Any movement in our history has occurred because of the power of people working together, and that’s what I want to do with this organization. I envision TAHT to be an organization that is able to reach as many teens as possible,” she says. “We bring teens together so we can lift each other up and raise awareness and help other people. We’re capable of so many things.”

Big Industry

According to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, modern slavery — for sex and for labor — is a $150 billion industry, on a scale with weapons and drug trades, that denies freedom to 20.9 million people worldwide, including in all 50 U.S. states and all age groups. In fact, there are more slaves today than at any other point in human history. And yes, they are in Iowa, some as young as age 8.

Make It Stop

  • Teens Against Human Trafficking:
  • The National Human Trafficking Resource Center offers information to the public and resources and services to victims of human trafficking and the anti-trafficking community in the United States. Callers can use its toll-free hotline to report suspicions of the crime 24 hours a day, seven days a week, in more than 200 languages: 888.373.7888;
  • The Network Against Human Trafficking is an Ames-based organization working to coordinate Iowa’s solution to end human trafficking by building coalitions, raising awareness and promoting advocacy:
  • Braking Traffik seeks to end sex trafficking in the Quad Cities through education, legislative advocacy and community partnerships. It recently produced the documentary “Any Kid Anywhere” about three Quad Cities trafficking victims:

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