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Human trafficking on the rise in Indiana

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At least 178 juveniles in Indiana were victims of human trafficking in 2016, and the number of tips about possible trafficking victims in the Hoosier state is rising each year.

The Indiana Attorney General Office’s 2016 Indiana State Report on Human Trafficking shows that in a span of just two years, the number of tips to the Indiana Protection for Abused and Trafficked Humans, or IPATH, task force about possible trafficking incidents quadrupled, up to 520 tips in 2016 from 130 in 2014.

kuzma Kuzma

There are two main reasons for the sharp uptick in trafficking tips, said Abby Kuzma, Indiana assistant attorney general and chief counsel for the Division of Victim Services and Outreach — an increase in awareness of the signs of trafficking, and growth in the Hoosier trafficking industry. While the rising number of human trafficking incidents — which includes both sex and labor trafficking — is alarming, Indiana law enforcement and legal professionals say continued efforts toward raising awareness of potential signs of trafficking is the key element to reducing the number of victims in Indiana.

Most investigations into human trafficking cases in Indiana begin with routine police traffic stops, said Lt. Brad Hoffeditz, legal counsel and legislative coordinator for the Indiana State Police and a member of IPATH’s policy committee. However, outside tips from Indiana Department of Child Services case managers and the general public are becoming more common, Kuzma said.

Similarly, the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, which runs a 24/7 hotline, reported that as of October 2016, it had received 206 Indiana trafficking calls, with 66 of those tips confirmed as likely trafficking cases. That’s up from 53 likely cases in 2015 and 50 in 2014.

When Indiana tips come in, they are often received by either DCS or Indiana law enforcement agencies, which then work together to verify their credibility, Kuzma said. One of law enforcement’s biggest concerns in the fight against human trafficking has been determining the best information to use when deciding if a tip constitutes a legitimate concern, Hoffeditz said. To that end, ISP has made a greater push toward training its officers to recognize some of the most common indicators that a person has been the victim of a trafficking scheme.

terrell-shaunestte-mug.jpg Terrell

Those indicators will vary based on what field a person is working in, said Shaunestte Terrell, Marion County deputy prosecuting attorney in the Human Trafficking and Missing Persons Division. Terrell is the only prosecutor in the state whose work is solely dedicated to human trafficking issues.

Terrell, who is a member of the IPATH core committee, said a general lack of awareness of the common signs of a trafficking situation has been the state’s biggest obstacle to combatting the trafficking industry, which is the fastest growing criminal industry in the world, according to the attorney general’s report. At least 300,000 American youths are at risk of becoming victims of commercial sexual exploitation, the report says.

From a law enforcement perspective, officers could be tipped off to a potential trafficking situation by someone’s clothes, possessions or demeanor, Hoffeditz said. But Terrell also takes her awareness message to hoteliers, social workers, school officials and people in other similar positions and advises workers in each of those industries on different indications that someone could be the victim of a commercial exploitation scheme.

Law enforcement officials and first responders are among the likeliest to encounter trafficking victims, Kuzma said, so it is crucial that those professionals understand the signs. Hoffeditz agreed and said ISP has begun training its officers to recognize common trafficking indicators as early as their time in the police academy, and that extra training has enabled officers to identify more potential victims during routine work, such as traffic stops.

Despite a greater awareness of potential trafficking indicators, more Hoosiers are being trafficked each year, with Terrell noting that the number of cases she works on has significantly increased over the course of two years, similar to the two-year jump in tips.

Another sign of the growing industry in Indiana is the increase in ads on “virtual brothels” such as Backpage.com, one of the most frequently used sites to find humans “available” for commercial exploitation, Kuzma said. The number of ads of youths “for sale” on Backpage is rising, she said, as is the demand on “adult services” sites, which frequently advertise prostitution veiled as body rubs or massages.

“That’s frightening, because demand fuels human trafficking,” Kuzma said.

The statewide opioid crisis also is contributing to the trafficking increase, with parents, often mothers, prostituting either themselves or their children as a way of getting money or drugs.

With so many factors contributing to the rise of trafficking across the Hoosier state, the report calls for an increase in financial resources to continue training and awareness initiatives for law enforcement, state agencies and service providers.

Funds are needed not just to stop traffickers, but also to provide services to victims, such as helping them find housing or get tested for sexually transmitted diseases, Terrell said. The prosecutor’s office can and does collaborate with victim service providers to meet some of those needs, but that collaboration is still not enough, she said.

However, Terrell praised Indiana, and the city of Indianapolis, in particular, for its collaborative approach to fighting the trafficking industry. The prosecutor’s office has staff designated for outreach to immigrant populations, such as Indianapolis’ Burmese population, and such initiatives are not as common across the country, the deputy prosecutor said.

Working with immigrant populations on trafficking issues is particularly important, Kuzma said, because immigrants who are trafficking victims can be eligible for a T Visa, which provides humanitarian immigration relief to victims of commercial exploitation.

Further, the report calls for the creation of an alternative prostitution court that would operate under the assumption that most prostitutes are not criminals, but instead are trafficking victims.

Often, adult prostitutes suffered sexual abuse or exploitation as minors, which makes them more susceptible to falling prey to trafficking schemes as adults, Kuzma said. Rather than sending those victims to jail for prostitution, the alternative court would offer trauma counseling and other mental health treatment to reduce recidivism. A similar program known as CATCH Court in Columbus, Ohio, has led to a significant decrease in both recidivism and in taxpayer money directed toward jail sentences, the report says.

Terrell said she is a strong advocate for the alternative court idea because it would provide trafficking victims with the necessary mental health treatment that they’ve been denied throughout their lives.

“I’ve not met one prostitute who says, ‘I do this because I love it,’” Terrell said. “Something’s going on there.”•

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