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Human trafficking in Indiana



While Indianapolis revels in summertime celebrations of sensuality, a darker and under-acknowledged side to sex in the Circle City also lurks.

Human trafficking, a $30 billion business worldwide, has gained increasing attention from policymakers and law enforcement in the last few years. Several human rights groups around the state have been working to increase awareness of the problem and the resources available to help underserved, and often undetected, victims.

"Many people don't believe that it can happen here," said Carleen Miller, executive director of Exodus Refugee Immigration, Inc. "We know that it can."

Since 2005, Exodus and the Julian Center have partnered with law enforcement, social services and health care organizations to form the Indianapolis Network to Assist Trafficked People (INATP). Funded by the U.S. Department of Justice's Office for Victims of Crime, the collective performs community outreach and provides aid to victims.

Victim service providers also sit on the Indiana Protection of Abused and Trafficked Humans task force (IPATH), one of 42 such task forces nationwide.

So far, Exodus has been able to help roughly 30 victims in Indiana. That number may sound small, but as Miller points out, "One person is too many."

High profit, low risk

Raio Krishnayya, founder and executive director of Indiana's Center for Victim and Human Rights (CVHR), said the risk-reward profile of trafficking works in the perpetrators' favor.

"The funny thing is, the cost of human labor is actually incredibly cheap but nets a very large profit," he said. "The data that's out there... suggests that you can make about $1,100 per person, per week."

The temptation of financial gain is compounded by how likely it is traffickers will get away with these crimes.

"If you do the math, there's less than 1 percent chance of being convicted for human trafficking," Krishnayya said.

Thus, estimates of trafficking activity, an "underreported crime" according to Krishnayya, are vague at best. But law enforcement has stepped up its efforts to target perpetrators.

According to the annual Trafficking in Persons Report released in June, federal prosecutors nationwide obtained 141 convictions last year in 103 human trafficking cases, encompassing both commercial sex and bonded labor crimes. This marks the largest annual number of federal prosecutions for trafficking crimes.

Indiana is not a national hotbed for trafficking activity, but by no means is it untainted by these crimes. In January, the Marion County Prosecutor's Office announced its first conviction of human trafficking in the case of Chris Smiley. Then in May, authorities busted a multi-state ring that had been bringing women across U.S. borders to work as prostitutes on Indianapolis' northwest side. But these cases are exceptional for their success in targeting commercial abuse.

Part of the problem lies in the legal criteria required for a human trafficking charge.

Enacted in 2006, Indiana Code 35-42-3.5 states that a person who knowingly "recruits, harbors or transports another person by force, threat of force or fraud" for the purpose of forced labor, or to coerce the person into marriage or prostitution, commits "promotion of human trafficking, a Class B felony."

The law's interpretation may seem fairly straightforward, but proving coercion or fraud can be difficult. And victims are often reluctant to come forward, particularly if their immigration status is in question. Traffickers use this to their advantage in the case of foreign nationals, dangling deportation as a consequence of leaving an abusive situation.

Providing adequate services to victims in such situations is a complicated task.

"It's not that victims want to be abused, it's that we cannot offer them enough protection," Krishnayya said. "Prosecutors and law enforcement don't have the resources... to bring someone up to essentially a living standard where they can choose to break away from the trafficker.

"The mechanisms for basically controlling a victim are only limited to a trafficker's creativity... The more sophisticated ones are going to use a lot more psychological coercion."

Breakdown in the system

In order to carry out a three "p" paradigm in addressing trafficking — prosecute, protect, prevent — CVHR strives to rectify inherent inadequacies within the trafficking response system.

Under the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, trafficking victims are eligible for a special visa, which allows temporary residence in the U.S. for up to 3 years and access public benefits like Medicaid, food stamps and subsidized housing. But eligibility is predicated on law enforcement's determination that a victim has complied with all "reasonable requests" during investigation and prosecution — if the case even makes it that far. The definition of "reasonable request" varies between agencies and prosecutors.

"The gatekeeper function of law enforcement doesn't work," Krishnayya said.

He suggests foregoing the existing eligibility requirement in favor of letting trafficked persons prove victimization "through their own independent evidence." Much of CVHR's work involves educational outreach regarding these policy inefficiencies to social services and government organizations.

It's unlikely, however, that any significant changes will be brought about in Indiana before what may be a main attraction for traffickers: The 2012 Super Bowl. In the past, the game has flooded host cities with trafficking activity.

In an MSNBC report earlier this year, the Texas attorney general's office estimated that up to 10,000 adult and underage girls have been imported to service Super Bowls crowds.

To prepare for the influx expected during 2011's game in Dallas, welfare agencies worked with law enforcement and the airline industry to raise awareness and identify signs of trafficking. When asked if she was aware of any similar initiative in Indianapolis for 2012, Exodus' Carleen Miller spoke to an active but realistic approach.

"We have a committee working on preparations for the Super Bowl. Law enforcement has it on their radar screen," she said. "We want to be proactive but we also don't want to sensationalize a problem if it's not going to be a problem."

Good Samaritans

The power to stop human trafficking is not limited, however, to these organized groups. According to Exodus, the general public can be instrumental in victim identification. Miller asked that citizens "be aware" by establishing neighborhood watch programs to look for signs of trafficking and reporting concerns to police.

Victims of trafficking, while at times hard to detect, may display any number of telltale signs, according to a 2008 United Nations Toolkit to Combat Trafficking in Persons. These include: signs of physical abuse; having no time off from work; having little or no access to cash; a stance demonstrated mistrust of authorities; having limited social interaction; and an inability to communicate or move around freely.

Child victims of trafficking demonstrate similar symptoms of abuse. Other clues advocates note include: having no friends outside of work; having no time to play; not eating meals with other "family" members; subsisting on leftovers; traveling unaccompanied by adults or in groups of unrelated people; and finding unaccompanied children carrying taxi telephone numbers.

Miller also suggested researching the origins of consumer items and vacation destinations, noting countries' records in trafficking enforcement, and advocating for stronger community responses to the demand for forced labor.

"We can work with victims in lots of different ways," Miller said, "but if we don't reduce the demand side, then the problem of trafficking continues."

Reframing misconceptions about the realities of trafficking is a significant first step in confronting what many consider an "over there problem," according to Krishnayya.

"I think people understand the gist generally, but how it happens... and who is really a potential victim is not well understood," he said. "People don't really realize how wide and broad it can be."

For more information on Exodus and their work with INATP and IPATH, visit To find out more about CVHR and their advocacy work, head to


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