Butler County residents on Monday had the opportunity to learn about one of the more tragic activities happening around the country and right in Nebraska: Human trafficking.
Several people gathered inside of the Hruska Memorial Public Library and listed while representatives from the Set Me Free Project, a nonprofit group based out of Omaha educating about the atrocities of human trafficking and sex trafficking, spoke about statistics, facts and red flags relating to modern-day slavery.
Nicole Gasper, Open Arms program manager for the Genesis House, said that hosting an event about human trafficking ties directly in with the Genesis House’s mission of assisting people in Butler and Polk counties who are survivors of domestic violence. While domestic violence and human trafficking are inherently different, both involve one person taking complete control – physically, emotionally and financially – of their victims’ lives.
Gasper said that typically talks about human trafficking are given in bigger cities, but that she wanted people in the greater David City area to be aware that it can happen right in the place they call home. Stephanie Olson, CEO of The Set Me Free Project, said that it’s a common misconception that human and sex trafficking isn’t happening in smaller Nebraska communities.
“It really does happen,” Olson said of human/sex trafficking occurring in small, rural communities. “We see a lot of activity in smaller towns as oppose to big towns because we all think that it won’t happen there, and traffickers really take advantage of that … Nebraska really is a hotspot."
The idea was generated by Gasper to have the talk in the wake of the death of Sydney Loofe, who was killed in 2017 after being placed in contact with her convicted murderer – and suspected murder/accomplice – through the mobile dating application Tinder.
Gasper read a story by the Omaha World-Herald discussing how in fall 2017, George Loofe, Sydney’s father, was serving as principal of Neligh-Oakdale High School when a student contacted the Set Me Free Project to do a discussion at the school relating to the dangers of online dating and sex trafficking.
Loofe signed off on the project, even though he didn’t really think sex trafficking was an issue in rural, northeast Nebraska, according to Gasper. Just a few weeks after the exchange, Sydney Loofe was murdered. Her body was recovered in December 2017 in rural Clay County more than 100 miles from her home in Lincoln.
“What stuck with me was, there was this quote saying basically, ‘sure, we can do this, but it really isn’t an issue here,’” Gasper said. “He (George Loofe) said it was something that never happened, and then suddenly it (trafficking and sexual exploitation) was something that he thought about every second of every day.”
Olson said that the Set Me Free Project educates in about 200 schools spanning across Nebraska, Iowa and South Dakota, providing curriculum for students in third grade through college, as well as for adults. Olson said there’s lots of misinformation surrounding human/sex trafficking, much like rape, where people still have this idea that the normal rape is when a woman is running at night and is mauled out of nowhere by her attacker, dragged into an alley and the action is carried out.
Similarly, people have an idea that human and sex trafficking happens where a child or teen is kidnapped, thrown into a vehicle and taken away kicking and screaming. However, she noted that this simply isn’t the case.
“There is this myth about kidnapping your kids and shipping them away,” Olson said. “And the truth is, most traffic victims know their traffickers. “They (traffickers) aren’t kidnapping our kids, they are building relationships with them … It’s our kids, our grandkids, and it’s happening right in our homes, in our neighborhoods.”
Education remains paramount, Olson added, because many people with good Midwestern values still simply have a hard time believing trafficking – of many sorts – is happening right under their nose.
“Interstate 80 crosses the whole nation and runs right through our state, and we are centrally located,” Olson said of Nebraska. “And I really do think we have become a hotspot for human traffickers because we are ‘Nebraska Nice.’ We trust each other and say, ‘oh, that will never happen here.’ And traffickers know that. And traffickers take advantage of that.”
Sam Pimper is the news editor of The Banner-Press. Reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.