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Psychology, Sociology, Social Work
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Raising Awareness About Human Trafficking in Iowa

By Leah Grout Garris


ver the past few years, Iowa’s anti-trafficking laws have become stronger, not only increasing penalties against traffickers and buyers, but also providing more protection and support for survivors.

Many parties in Iowa also provide mental and physical health services, housing, and legal support for victims—but it’s difficult to understand the types of services provided, who provides them, and whether they’re effective.

As part of his Ph.D. work at the University of Georgia, Taylor Houston, assistant professor of sociology, studied two state anti-trafficking organizations, and was fascinated by how faith-based and feminist-based groups worked together. “There are interesting bedfellows within the anti-trafficking movement: evangelical Christians and feminists, for example,” says Houston. “Those groups typically don’t spend time together, let alone advocate for the same things. But, in this instance, they actively work together.”

After moving to Cedar Rapids to begin teaching at Mount Mercy University, Houston became a board member for the Iowa Network Against Human Trafficking and Slavery. Early on, Houston was asked to co-chair the group’s Research, Evaluation, and Best Practice Standards Committee.

“One of the things I’ve wanted to do since I joined Mount Mercy was conduct research with students,” says Houston. “This was a great opportunity to do so.”

After successfully applying for an R.J. McElroy Trust Research Grant, Houston brought Kaitlin Gregerson ’19 on board as a research assistant to help identify and gather information about the individuals, professionals, and organizations that provide human-trafficking victim services in Iowa.

“People don’t know what resources are available,” says Houston. “If someone comes to you as a victim, who do you call? Our goal is to identify best practices for providing services, as well as establish what resources are available to Iowans.”

Houston and Gregerson spent this past summer driving across Iowa to interview people from different geographic areas who provide services or have initial contact with victims, hoping to learn more about what they do and how they do it.

“Working one-on-one with a faculty member is an amazing experience,” says Gregerson. “I’ve learned a lot about qualitative research and seen the work that goes into getting a research project approved and finding individuals to participate. These are all things that will be an advantage for graduate school.”

About two dozen interviews were completed in October; November and December were spent coding the interviews (looking for themes regarding best practices, barriers to services, lack of services, etc.). Based upon what they uncovered, Houston and Gregerson then produced a report that will soon be shared with the Iowa Network Against Human Trafficking and Slavery and research participants. The research will also be presented at Mount Mercy University’s Scholarship Festival in 2018, as well as at the Iowa Sociological Association’s Annual Meeting.

Next year, in collaboration with a new set of students, Houston plans to use the report findings to draft a survey for hospitals, mental health professionals, substance-abuse centers, and law enforcement to gauge awareness in regard to human trafficking, as well as establish where more training is needed.

One of the report’s significant findings: Southern Iowa needs more dedicated services for human trafficking.

“There are services available to those areas, but they’re located in Des Moines and other places that require travel,” says Houston. “Many communities don’t think it happens to them. But this happens even in small, rural communities.” ■

“One of the things I’ve wanted to do since I joined Mount Mercy was conduct research with students,” says Taylor Houston. “This was a great opportunity to do so.”