Red sand placed by students in sidewalk cracks at Des Moines Area Community College Carroll campus is symbolic of every person that has fallen through the cracks and into human trafficking.
Red sand placed by students in sidewalk cracks at Des Moines Area Community College Carroll campus is symbolic of every person that has fallen through the cracks and into human trafficking.

She felt the vibration as her phone buzzed in her pocket. It was time to go.

She glanced around to see if anyone watched as she shook with trepidation. No one.

She walked out of the Iowa State University football stadium. She never watched the games.

She climbed into a stranger’s van and fell through the cracks.

This young woman is one of the many human-trafficking victims Ruth I.E. Buckels has worked with. Buckels, a program coordinator with Youth Standing Strong in Ames, spoke Wednesday at Des Moines Area Community College in Carroll to discuss the growing concern of sex trafficking in Iowa — particularly in rural areas.

Outside of DMACC, red sand filled sidewalk cracks. Each grain symbolized someone who had slipped through the cracks and into human trafficking — coercing and forcing people into a system of labor or sexual exploitation. It has been called modern-day slavery.

Buckels has worked with at-risk youth in Iowa for 28 years and adopted seven kids who had been trafficked.

She first began to study human trafficking after she received a call from a stranger looking for her adopted daughter who had escaped the industry.

The girl was named Brittany, and about seven months after she was placed with Buckels in 2008, a man called the house and asked to speak with Brittany.

He knew her last name. And he wouldn’t identify himself.

Buckels spoke with a prosecuting attorney, who warned her that if she returned Brittany to her home state, she could be killed.

Thus began Buckels’ investigation into human trafficking.

She now travels all over Iowa to speak to people about the topic.

At the DMACC seminar Wednesday, she told attendees how much human trafficking is overlooked and ignored.

“To understand trafficking, you need to take off the poor, pity-the-victim thinking, and you need to put on your business thinking cap, and you need to go, ‘Why would this be happening?’” Buckels said.

She has worked with 170 survivors of human trafficking, and they all said they didn’t have a choice.

“How many of you woke up today and decided you would like to be sexually assaulted and/or abused by 15 people you don’t choose or don’t know?” Buckels asked.

In Iowa, the farm crisis, job losses and corporations moving in and out of the state have left some jobless and destitute, Buckels said.

Anywhere that desperation exists, human trafficking can be found — and it exists among wealth, too, she said.

In Iowa, three types of trafficking exist.

Corporate or pimp trafficking operates on a business scale and involves someone finding and recruiting people to be trafficked on a large scale. Pimps have “stables” of people available to buyers based on type “ordered” — kids, men, women, elderly people.

Gang trafficking involves trafficking people to distract from or support another crime, such as selling drugs. Parents might take their young kids on a trip to sell drugs in the next state and force them to offer sexual favors in exchange for gas.

Family trafficking — the most common type of trafficking in Iowa — involves family or friends selling members of the family.

“You start to think, what kind of desperation leads you to the kind of resources of wanting to use your family, your wives and children, as products to sell?” she said.

A few of the biggest cases of trafficking that have broken in Iowa have involved female traffickers. A Child Exploitation Task Force in Omaha found that 50 percent of traffickers are women, ranging in age from 19 to 42 and representing a variety of social classes.

As for those who are buying other people, it’s not just men — women and couples are guilty as well, Buckels said.

“After that book ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ came out, couples started buying people who are enslaved to spice up their love life at home — so having a three-way, a four-way, an orgy or being able to buy into that in order to ‘help’ their marriage,” she said.

Many businesses and storefronts serve as covers for human trafficking.

“In Iowa, it’s agriculture businesses,” Buckels said. “They might have this huge hog operation or this huge cattle operation, but you’re bringing in hired help that maybe it is undocumented. You’re offering beds up in this barn, and when they’re not busy working, you’re supplying them some side benefits. Those side benefits may or may not be free people.”

One girl was found in an abandoned barn in Iowa. She was discovered by a curious neighbor who saw tire tracks over fresh snow leading to the barn. Their question: Where was the car?

A police officer found a naked girl with one blanket and no food.

“This isn’t a city thing,” Buckels said. “In all honesty, we are hearing more about it in rural communities that have these money or financial issues, and then we’re getting this stereotype where trafficking only happens to low-income people that live in trailers that can’t afford what they need. That is a fallacy.”

The Polaris Project, a project that fights against human trafficking, found that some human traffickers bring in an average of $32,833 a week.

For many, it becomes a side business off of their farm or other job.

Buckels has seen people ranging from 3 months old to 72 years old trafficked — and anyone can be vulnerable to it.

“When I talk about vulnerabilities, it’s this simple — you have vulnerabilities if you know somebody, love somebody, have a medical issue, have anything in your world that you value potentially as much as you value yourself,” she said. “All I have to know if I’m doing a head game on you is what your vulnerability is so I can blackmail you into doing what I want you to do.”

Traffickers prey on the young with blackmail by getting them to do something they are ashamed of — something they don’t want their parents or anyone to know, she said.

Buckels said she has met with wealthy families dripping in diamonds and was asked by one mother, “Do you really think this would happen to our children? I mean, do you think our children would frequent these places?”

“I looked at her and thought, ‘Oh, honey, your children more than anybody. Look who they have to protect. Look who they don’t want to shame,’” Buckels said.

Trafficking is something that happens every day and goes unnoticed, she said. Almost all of the 170 victims Buckels has worked with said they told at least 10 people they were being trafficked before they were rescued.

No one listened.

“We stay in our own little world,” Buckels said. “We never stop and go, ‘Why are those kids standing there all by themselves? That doesn’t make any sense.’”

What will it take to get people to notice? Buckels asked. Throughout her presentation, she pressed the audience to understand the severity of human trafficking: “Get it?”

Victims aren’t forced to walk the streets in lingerie. They are in normal street clothes. They are not a walking billboard.

“Get it?”

It is easy overlook something so tragic, she said.

It wasn’t until The Des Moines Register told the state Iowa was suffering from a methamphetamine epidemic that most people accepted there was meth in the state, Buckels said.

“It’s the same thing,” she said. “There’s no trafficking until you know what it is.”

Teens Against Human Trafficking is a youth-led movement to fight and end trafficking. To find out more about having teens speak to schools and educate students about human trafficking, call 515-233-2250. Buckels urges anyone being trafficked to get help from local advocates, contact the police or a trusted person. She added that anyone who is approached by someone who is being trafficked or who suspects it is happening should contact the police.

After many of her presentations, women who have been trafficked have approached Buckels.

“Thank you for not making me look like a whore,” they say.

She looks at them and asks: “You too?”

Their simple response: “Me too.”

Buckels’ message is clear: This is happening, right here.

It’s your son’s classmate who comes to class late, tired.

It’s that girl outside the store waiting alone, constantly checking her phone.

Get it?”