Driving through Cedar Rapids gave Heather Brown goosebumps. To the dozens of people gathered at Greene Square Park on Friday, Brown shared the story of the first time she was trafficked in the area during a football game at the University of Iowa in 2010.
“We stopped at a Hy-Vee and were loaded on a RV,” Brown recalled. “… It was myself [and] there were two other girls and a couple of guys. We went to this Iowa/Iowa State game, though we didn’t get to watch it. We stayed in the RV the whole time, and there were 68 men and women that came in through the game and used us and bought us. On our way back, we came back through Cedar Rapids, and they let us off this RV at the same parking lot.”
The next day Brown was taken back to Morningside College in Sioux City where she was a student at the time. While at college, Brown was in a relationship with a man she thought she’d marry someday. She later realized that she was being groomed by him.
“It took me nine years to get out of that relationship that I thought one day would end in marriage but actually ended up me being trafficked all across the state of Iowa and surrounding states,” Brown said. “… It wasn’t until 2012 that somebody put the verbiage human trafficking in my vocabulary that I learned what was happening to me.”
Brown, a survivor of human trafficking and now an advocate, was one of the speakers during an event on Friday at Greene Square Park organized by local nonprofit Chains Interrupted and Red Sand Project.
In addition to hearing from speakers, individuals were also given red sand to pour into sidewalk cracks and chalk to write messages. The event aimed to raise awareness about human trafficking and the individuals who “fall through the cracks,” Chains Interrupted Executive Director Terri Claire said.
“I do this because there are men and women that I was sold alongside that are no longer alive. There are men and women that I was sold alongside that are still being bought and sold,” Brown said. “I know it’s my job to advocate heavily to everybody, young and old. I believe everybody needs to be educated on human trafficking, and I think that’s where it’s going to start is education to stop, to help, to prevent this in the future. If we’re not educated, how can we fight?”
Human trafficking can look like a number of different things, Chains Interrupted co-founder Teresa Davidson said, adding that sometimes it can look like domestic violence, sexual assault or prostitution.
“Human trafficking is making somebody provide a service, and that can be a labor service or something in the sex industry due to force, fraud or coercion,” Davidson said. She said the most common way it’s happening now is through fraud and coercion — by manipulating the victim and lying to them. It can be “subtle” and look different from case to case.
Davidson, a pediatric nurse practitioner, is Iowa’s first anti-human trafficking coordinator in a hospital. When she started working at Mercy Medical Center, Davidson said she thought maybe they would help 10 people a year because of how difficult it is to get out of human trafficking.
“The first year that I was the anti-human trafficking coordinator there, I had 58 referrals — think about that in our local community,” Davidson said. “That’s just people who reached out or their family members reached out or another organization did. Second year, 73 different people. I’m not counting them twice. Fiscal year 21 just ended in July, I had 92 new people.”
Davidson also thanked Councilmember Ashley Vanorny and the Cedar Rapids Police Department for the work they’re doing in the community, as well as their work as part of a 2018 massage therapy business license ordinance that incorporates human trafficking language.
The ordinance, which went into effect at the start of 2019, calls for local businesses that offer massage services to be licensed through the city in addition to having a state license. Human trafficking is sometimes associated with illegal massage businesses and advocates called for language addressing that.
“If the City has probable cause that prostitution, … or human trafficking … has occurred at a property providing massage therapy, the police department may placard the property,” the ordinance states.
“My sincere gratitude to Chains Interrupted, Cedar Rapids Police Department, experiences shared from our survivors and anyone who helped to participate and make this ordinance strong so that we could take a stance here in 2018 and understand that we will not allow human trafficking in Cedar Rapids, Iowa,” Vanorny said.
Brown said it wasn’t until 2019 that she “finally found her freedom.”
“Every time I drive into Cedar Rapids, I have this heavy feeling in my heart, but today, I stand here with hope,” Brown said. “… [The City of Cedar Rapids is] really leading the way, and I appreciate it. I know those of us that are still living this life, still being trafficked, that don’t have the voice to stand up yet, they appreciate it too.”
Information about some of the signs of human trafficking and how to get assistance can be found on the Chains Interrupted website.
• National Human Trafficking Hotline: 888-373-7888 or text “BeFree” at 233733
• Iowa Crime Victim’s Hotline: 800-770-1650
• Chains Interrupted emergency number: 319-536-2027
• Chains Interrupted non-emergency number: 319-364-0222
• Emergency room at Mercy Medical Center, 701 10th Street SE in Cedar Rapids
Other relevant links:
More information on the difference between sex work and human trafficking or sex trafficking.
A Buzzfeed article highlighting the prevalence and danger of sex trafficking misinformation, particularly involving children, that fuels conspiracy theories like QAnon and far-right extremism.