If prostitution is the world's oldest profession, then human trafficking is the world's oldest commodities trade. After all, the trading of human beings for commercial gain has occurred since the dawn of man. Surprisingly, it still exists today. But what was once a common everyday occurrence in a marketplace or village square happens underground and in the shadows. But it also still occurs right next door, in our neighborhoods and right under our noses.
According to the U.S. State Department, between 14,000 and 17,500 people are trafficked in the United States each year. While sex trafficking occurs at a much higher rate in the U.S. than labor trafficking, both are still an issue in this country. Here in Indiana, the actual numbers are a lot harder to pinpoint because of little to no recordkeeping of the numbers until recently.
"Indiana hasn't done a good job of capturing really hard numbers," says Jessica Evans, executive director of Purchased — an Indianapolis-based non-profit organization dedicated to raising awareness about human trafficking both locally and around the world. "But we do know that each year we see more and more victims identified and identified properly, [which] is another key thing."
Typically a young girl found in forced servitude of any sort is labeled — a runaway, prostitute, petty thief, or whatever label that fits the circumstance of her crossing paths with law enforcement. But a closer look in recent years has found that illegal activity is more likely than not associated with trafficking of some kind. While a woman may be collecting money for sex — the rudimentary definition of prostitution — the commercial gain is not her own but rather belongs to someone else. The Indiana Protection for Abused and Trafficked Humans (I-PATH) task force is working to improve awareness in the state as well as collect data to gain a better picture of human trafficking in the Hoosier state.
While it may be hard for some to believe that human trafficking is an issue in Indiana, it does exist and is a growing problem. The number of women and girls being forced or coerced into sexual servitude grows each year across the country. The average age of a girl first being forced into that servitude is 13. The average age at death for a woman in that life is 34 and the most common cause of death is homicide. Yet, even with those averaging statistics, there is no "typical" victim.
"We see victims of human trafficking who are both genders, who are affluent, and who are from poverty situations," says Evans.
Purchased works primarily with women and girls who have been human-trafficking victims. The organization offers survivor support, which includes financial support for a bus ticket back home or drug rehabilitation and a mentorship program for girls to connect with positive role models in the community. Often it's that mentorship is the key to helping a young woman or girl rise above the situation she has found herself in and fills the need that existed at the onset of her servitude.
"Most of the time it was over some kind of a relationship so a boyfriend, an older guy who was like a "daddy" and just girls who were looking for love, looking for attention, looking for someone to be a family with. And as sick as it sounds, that's what they do," says Evans about the traffickers who lure women and girls into servitude. "They prey on these girls who are vulnerable and want love and attention and other things and provide those for them initially, gaining their trust and then end up taking advantage of them."
According to federal law, any minor engaged in a commercial sexual act is a victim of human trafficking. For adults over the age of 18, the use of force, fraud and/or coercion must be present in order to qualify for the distinction of human trafficking whether it is sex trafficking or labor trafficking. Force, fraud or coercion are the metrics used to determine if the victim has consented to the act of their own free will. No free will equals human trafficking victim.
However, the most disturbing and eye–opening revelation to come out of the research about human trafficking is its occurrence in plain sight. Hollywood plot lines from TV shows and movies would lead one to believe that all human trafficking involves a windowless box truck carrying shipments of people from place to place in the dead of night. However, according to Evans and The National Human Trafficking Resource Center, human trafficking victims — especially sex trafficking victims — could be your friends, family and neighbors.
"I definitely know of young girls who were being trafficked and were going to school at the same time or were still living in their home or were still around their neighborhood or were still going to get their hair and nails done and were going to the grocery store, says Evans. "So they are out in public but just not the normal typical [person]."
The signs of a human trafficking victim living among us are somewhat similar to those of a domestic violence victim with a few exceptions. Evidence of physical or sexual abuse, isolation from peers and co-workers, and lack of control of his or her own person or finances are indicators of both human trafficking and domestic violence. However vigilant attention to one's appearance, hanging out with older men who appear in constant and strict control, inconsistent personal stories, lack of identification and restricted or scripted communication are more indicators of possible human trafficking.
"There's not a typical case, because sometimes they are secluded and isolated and no one would know except the hotel manager in the hotel that they're in but sometimes they do kind of somewhat live a normal life and so it just depends of the situation," says Evans.
Still if your eye keeps paying attention to one individual and/or your gut is telling you there just is something not right — especially with a young woman or child — then contacting authorities is the advised course of action.
"We talk with law enforcement and they say the only time they know to follow through on a tip sometimes is when community members or hotel managers or someone sees something suspicious," says Evans. "It's definitely important to call law enforcement but to not get personally involved."
Human trafficking isn't a new issue locally or globally. But it took Indianapolis hosting the Super Bowl in 2012 for local officials to really get serious about it. Evans says although it is frustrating that it takes something big like that to get attention to the issue, it can — in Indiana's case did — serve as a catalyst for attention and change.
"It definitely does happen there and it's actually helpful to raise [awareness]," says Evans. "It does what we want it to do — it raises awareness which raises people's attention to it, so we try to capitalize on that when we can."
Human Trafficking Legislation
Indiana legislators are becoming more aware of the issue of human trafficking. In the current legislative session, two bills have been submitted to address the issue:
HB 1028 (Truitt) - Makes it visiting a common nuisance, a Class A misdemeanor, for a person to knowingly or intentionally visit a building, structure, vehicle, or other place with the intent to violate certain laws concerning human and sexual trafficking. Makes it maintaining a common nuisance, a Level 6 felony, for a person to knowingly or intentionally maintain a building, structure, vehicle, or other place that is used one or more times to violate certain laws concerning human and sexual trafficking.
HB 1199 (McNamara) - Adds the crime of promotion of human trafficking of a minor to the definitions of "sex offender" and "sex or violent offender".
In 2015, the national hotline took 175 calls from Indiana with 40 human trafficking cases reported. Since 2007, 1,027 calls have been placed from Indiana with 253 total cases reported.
About Purchased and Jessica Evans
Purchased is a 501(c)(3) non-profit public charity whose mission is to empower communities to end modern day slavery. It is based in Indianapolis, IN.
Purchased facilitates events to raise awareness and educate people about modern day slavery and inspire them to join in the abolition movement. Purchased invests in youth through educational opportunities, empowering them rise to the challenge to be allies against sexual exploitation. Purchased also collaborates with organizations to provide survivor support.
Founder and executive director Jessica Evans came up with the idea for Purchased after an interaction with sex trafficking survivors in Nepal in 2007. Purchased began organizing as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization in 2011 and shifted its attention to local human trafficking following the 2012 Super Bowl held in Indianapolis.
More information about Purchased is available online at purchased.org.
If you know of or suspect someone who is involved in human trafficking, you can call the national hotline for confidential help and info at 1-888-373-7888.