Indiana panel hears testimony on human trafficking

A state trooper who investigates human trafficking told a commission devoted to children's issues Wednesday that he's looked into nearly 40 such cases this year but the shadowy nature of the forced sex and labor trade means it's unclear how far the problem reaches into Indiana.

Skyler Whittington told the state Commission on Improving the Status of Children that his work in a recent undercover operation helped break up an online scheme that lured girls into the sex trade. He said three girls, including one who was about to start being used for prostitution the day of the sting, were rescued.

"That day was going to be her first clientele visit if you will, so to be in front of that is like nothing else in the rest of my career," Whittington told the commission, which includes judicial system representatives, lawmakers and state agency chiefs.

The panel heard the human trafficking testimony as part of its ongoing mission to find ways to improve the lives of vulnerable Indiana children.

State Attorney General Greg Zoeller said more than 80 percent of human trafficking victims are U.S. citizens, despite the perception that trafficking primarily involves people who have entered the country illegally.

Abigail Kuzma, a deputy state attorney general, told the commission that there have been 134 human trafficking cases identified by Indiana law enforcement agencies since 2006 and another 123 cases uncovered by victim service providers. Thirty-eight of those cases were from 2014.

"It's happening right under our noses," said Kuzma, who heads the consumer protection division of the attorney general's office.

Many of Indiana's human trafficking victims have been younger than 18, although a breakdown of what percentage of the cases involve youth isn't available, the attorney general's office said.

Kuzma said the children most at risk of falling into human trafficking — which can involve prostitution, forced labor or a combination of the two — are children from impoverished homes, those who have faced abuse and children who already have cases with the state's Department of Child Services.

David Powell, executive director of the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council, told commission members that the council would be supporting two state law changes in the coming legislative session regarding child exploitation and child pornography — crimes often linked to human trafficking.

Those proposals would double the sentences people convicted of child exploitation would face, and more than double the sentences of people convicted of possessing child pornography. For both crimes, people convicted on those charges would face higher sentences if their victims are younger than 12.

After hearing Wednesday's testimony, the commission voted against recommending that the Indiana Legislature consider boosting child pornography and child exploitation sentences. Some commission members said those proposals needed more study.

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