New Indiana law will strengthen penalties against child sex trafficking
By: Barb Berggoetz
The Indianapolis Star
Published January 31, 2012
A young girl is accompanied by a much older man who doesn't act like her father.
She is dressed inappropriately for her age. Although checking into a hotel, she has no luggage.
She looks down, avoiding eye contact. She tries to force a smile, but she is quiet.
These red flags indicating that she may be a victim of child sex trafficking are hard to detect. But the warning signs are there. And they may be apparent in the coming week while Indianapolis hosts the festivities associated with Super Bowl XLVI.
Local officials and child advocates are preparing for that likelihood as more than 100,000 people converge here. But officials and advocates are looking down the road, too, long after the game ends.
The Indiana House and Senate passed a fast-tracked bill, signed into law Monday by Gov. Mitch Daniels before the Super Bowl, to strengthen penalties against human trafficking.
The extent of local sex trafficking year-round isn't known.
Nor is it clear how much trafficking of minors, some as young as 11, will go on using local girls or those brought in from other cities in the days leading up to the Super Bowl.
But during last year's Super Bowl in Miami, for example, child advocacy group Klaas Kids Foundation and Miami-based Kristi House identified at least 16 out-of-town underage prostitutes. In 2009, Florida's Department of Children and Families said 24 childrenwere sex trafficking victims during Tampa Bay's Super Bowl.
"Whenever you have any large gathering like this, you'll find trafficking," said Abigail Kuzma, director of consumer protection for Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller. "We are expecting individuals to be brought in, although we don't have any specifics on the use of local girls."
Kuzma has been the attorney general's advocate in getting the anti-trafficking legislation passed.
Kuzma said that since 2005, law enforcement officials have investigated 50 child trafficking cases in Indiana. The majority were possible sex trafficking cases, while a few involved labor trafficking. But only one case was prosecuted under state law. Before the law was signed Monday, Kuzma said gaps made it hard to prosecute child trafficking cases.
Most significantly, under the previous law traffickers could escape prosecution by arguing the child was not being held against her will. Now, prosecutors don't have to prove force or threat of force so long as the child is younger than 16.
The law makes recruiting, transporting or harboring anyone younger than 16 for prostitution or other sexual conduct a felony punishable by 20 to 50 years in prison.
Trafficking of minors 16 and 17 remains illegal, but force, threat of force or fraud need to be proven with children of that age.
Another provision of the law makes it illegal for anyone, not just a child's parent or guardian, to sell or transfer custody of a child for sex.
"We have to be alert to protect these children," Kuzma said. "We probably will never know how many people are trafficked here because it's so easy to hide the victims.
"But we do know that trafficking is already happening in this area," said Kuzma, Zoeller's designee on Indiana Protection for Abused and Trafficked Humans, one of 42 task forces nationwide.
One indication of more trafficking activity is that for the past three weeks the attorney general's office has noticed an uptick in hits in the escort section of free classified ad website www.backpage.com. Code phrases such as "just turned 18" and "ripe" are used.
Traffickers operate insidiously, looking for vulnerable girls, say anti-trafficking groups. The men befriend them, give them gifts and gain their trust. Then traffickers lure them into prostitution, sometimes physically threatening them or their families if they try to leave.
Nationally, experts estimate that at least 100,000 American children are victimized through prostitution each year. It's commonly known that large sporting events attract more activity.
Former Republican U.S. Congresswoman Linda Smith, Washington, has dedicated herself to fighting sex trafficking.
Her organization, Shared Hope International, and the American Center for Law & Justice had given Indiana a "D" grade in an analysis of state trafficking laws. The organization gave more than half the states "F's."
Smith said she has talked with victims of sex trafficking in Indianapolis. Her organization also has seen evidence of trafficking here through websites where prostitution ads are placed.
Her organization's extensive tracking of activity in numerous U.S. cities and several other countries has led her to believe Indianapolis has an aggressive trafficking market, Smith said.
Several nonprofit groups are taking action.
"This is evil among us that needs to be stopped," said Pat Wachtel, chief executive and president of Girls Inc., which is fine-tuning current programs to offer girls information and advice on trafficking. "If this happens to one child, it's one child too many."
Among the steps being taken:
Training of 1,500 to 2,000 Super Bowl volunteers, local police officers, hotel personnel and cab drivers to recognize potential sex trafficking of minors.
Creation of a group home-treatment program in Indianapolis by Sunday for child sex trafficking and sexual crime victims. The Department of Child Services has been working with a group of providers to create this program in a permanent, safe facility, said James Payne, department director.
Education and awareness programs by several nonprofit and girls service organizations to alert girls and parents about how to avoid and detect traffickers. A total of 25 people, including Zoeller, were called together in October by Indianapolis native and businesswoman Kai Binford after she learned of Smith's work.
Efforts by anti-trafficking groups from around the country to help detect sex trafficking against minors during the Super Bowl and assist with training local people. They include Free International, Klaas Kids, Central Oregon Region for Oregonians Against Human Trafficking, and Michigan and Indiana members of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility.
Among those traveling here is Theresa Flores, a sex trafficking victim who founded Save Our Adolescents From Prostitution, based in Columbus, Ohio.
She grew up in Northern Indiana before moving to Detroit, where she was a victim for two years beginning at age 15.
Now director of education at Gracehaven House, a group home for exploited or trafficked teenage girls she speaks nationally and wrote the book "The Slave Across The Street."
She was drugged and raped by a gang of men in inner-city Detroit, who blackmailed her with some pictures after she was drugged. She attended school each day and was called into "service" at night.
On Friday, she recounted one night being taken to a hotel and auctioned off to the highest bidder and abused 20 times.
"That was my worst moment," said Flores, 46, who escaped when her family moved.
She remembered going into the bathroom and washing up with a bar of soap. She started SOAP in 2010 as a way to reach potential victims. The group distributes free soap bars to hotels during major events with the national trafficking hotline number on them, as well as information to educate staff.
For the Super Bowl, she has orders for 16,000 bars and plans to distribute an additional 15,000 here, as well as some in Anderson, Lafayette and Evansville.
The child sex trafficking issue resonated so much with the Women Like Us Foundation that last fall the nonprofit group selected the problem for its nine-month annual campaign.
Co-founder Linda Rendleman said the group chose the topic because it fits well with its mission of empowering women to make a difference here and globally.
The group raises money for sustainable global projects, mentors high school girls and offers humanitarian trips. It hopes to create awareness about trafficking among girls and adults in the community through seminars, workshops and other events.
Girl Scouts of Central Indiana intends to replicate a sex trafficking program from its council in Phoenix that alerts girls to warning signs and helps them get services, CEO Deborah Hearn Smith says.
Another nonprofit group, Women's Fund of Central Indiana, wants to be involved in educating the public and finding solutions. The group gives grants to women and girl-serving organizations to create opportunities for females to help transform their lives.
"Now is a good time (during the Super Bowl) to shine a light on a problem that most people don't believe exists," said Jennifer Pope Baker, executive director. "It's like how domestic violence was thought about 20 years ago."
Leave a Comment
There are currently no comments for this blog entry.
If you are interested in becoming a blog sponsor, please contact Abigail Coleman at 317.634.2423 x169 or email@example.com.
- 2013 (106)
- 2012 (103)
- 2011 (100)
- 2010 (111)
- 2009 (46)