OMAHA(KPTM)--There are at least two thousand people in Nebraska who are forced to work as prostitutes. That's according to research from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.
Lawmakers say one of the biggest obstacles in helping these people is that the public doesn't know--or believe--that people are sold for sex. Many have a hard time believing it happens right at home in Nebraska.
But one woman knows all too well that it doesn't happen--and that it can happen anywhere.
Long, mottled scars running from her inner thigh down her leg are the only physical marks left you can see. Jane* was raped, beaten and threatened with her life every day in the west African country she was born in.
So when a man offered her romance, marriage and a better life in America, she went with him.
"He told me he was going to marry me. When he married me, I would become a better person," she said. "He told me that 'if you stay in this country they are going to catch you, they will find you so I am going to help you. Then I said 'ok, I'm happy'"
The man, known to Jane as Mike, smuggled her out of Africa, but once the plane landed on American soil:
"When we came in he totally changed. These men would come sleep with me. I didn't know how to speak the English. I would just say why why why? They would say shhh... you know? They do that then they go. It's so shameful," she explained.
The man kept her locked in a basement, away from the outside world. He told her police would take her back to her country where she would be killed if she ever left.
She has no idea how long she was in captivity. She doesn't know how many men there were. She didn't even know she was doing it for money.
"You don't know somebody. That person will come, different different people will come have sex with you. That is bad. I didn't want it. I would have rather died in my country than have somebody else have sex with me when I'm not ready and I don't even know you. Not him alone that brought me, but somebody else I don't know. More than one, two or three. I was going to kill me if I [had] any way to kill myself at that time when I was with him I would have done it," she said stoically.
Jane's story is just one of what could be hundreds of thousands across the country.
The experts have a hard time putting an exact number on how many victims like Jane could be out there.
"The thing about people who are traffickers, the predators, they are very adept at psychological mind games," said Linda Burkle with the Salvation Army's Wellspring Program which helps victims of human trafficking. "Most of the young ladies I have worked with that were trafficked did not see themselves as being trafficked. This was their boyfriend, this was the love of their life. They would do anything for him,"
Some studies suggest there are at least 200,000 minors alone being trafficked in the United States.
Lawmakers say it's difficult to know for certain partially because many police don't know how to separate a victim from someone in prostitution willingly.
"In many cases the woman feels so vulnerable and feels so afraid she doesn't go and rat out the man in charge, she's afraid he's gonna beat her up or that's the person who feeds her," said Nebraska State Senator Amanda McGill.
She's been working tirelessly to pass legislation to help with the problem.
She introduced and helped pass a bill that ups the prison sentence to maximum of 20 years. Before, a person convicted of pandering--coercing or forcing a person into prostitution--would only face a maximum of five years behind bars.
The bill calls for a task force to study trafficking in Nebraska and adds training for law enforcement and lawyers to teach them to separate prostitutes and victims.
The Polaris Project helped with the bill. It is a national organization working to end modern day slavery. It rates each state based on the type of legislation and services available to trafficking victims.
Nebraska currently sits at the second to worst rating.
"Nebraska has a good start, but there's still room for improvement," said Mary Ellison, policy director for the organization.
It's too early to know how the new legislation could help improve Nebraska's rating, but a high turnout at recent trafficking awareness events is a good sign.
"The number of people from the community that are interested in this issue is really stunning," said Ellison.
State Senator Mcgill's next goal is to help provide services to help victims in the state start a new life.
"It doesn't do any good to identify the victims if they don't have a safe place to stay," she said. "There are a lot of barriers to good treatment right now,"
Bills adding services have been passed several times, but the Governor vetoed funding for the services several years in a row.
"I think part of the reason he was able to veto that money and not get it is that people don't understand the vulnerability of these women and how widespread it is. It's not just a North Omaha or South Omaha problem. It's not even just an Omaha problem. It happens everywhere," she said.
Burkle says the I-80 corridor is a prime area for trafficking.
"Anywhere there's a major highway with truck stops next to it," she said, especially near truck and rest stops.
Jane managed to escape her captor by tricking him into taking her to a friend's house. She told him she had "pretty, skinny, tiny" friends inside.
It's been five years since she last saw the man who forced her into sex slavery. The FBI has never found any leads on who he might be.
"I'm really really really really scared. I am so so so scared. I am scared. That's why if I am walking somewhere, I don't like to pass places where people don't see," she said. "My eyes are always passing, maybe I will see him. If I see him, I will know him. If he sees me, he will know me. (Laughs) even though I am fat now,"
Today she is working on her education. She is nearly finished with her GED and hopes to go on to college. Until then, she says she feels a sense of freedom knowing she can speak and read English.
"So nobody will fool us again, illiteracy is the one that made me suffer,"
She's just hoping someone out there takes away something from her story.
"Forcing women to do something out of their wish--that is a killing. There is no difference with killing them. It is the same,"
The University of Nebraska Lincoln has done some extensive research into human trafficking. If you'd like to learn more a conference has been set for the weekend of October 11, 2012.
If you or somebody you know is trapped in a human trafficking situation, call the nation hotline at 1-888-373-7888