Disconnected: Experts weigh in on keeping kids safe from human trafficking

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A state report revealed that human traffickers most often recruit young victims online. Local experts say there are many things parents can do to keep their kids safe. (Photo Illustration)

By Ann Marie Shambaugh

Kids are harnessing the power of technology to do amazing things. From fundraising to building their own businesses, the possibilities are endless.

So are the dangers.

The same devices that can be used for so much good can also be a direct link to evil, providing those willing to take advantage of the most vulnerable with direct access that wasn’t available a few years ago.

Hurley

The Indiana State Report on Human Trafficking released in December 2016 revealed that the Indiana Trafficking Victims Assistance Program provided services for nearly 180 youth who had been trafficked in the first 10 months of 2016 alone. It also states that the Internet and social media is where most victims are recruited.

“This is not something we had to wrestle with 20 years ago. It’s a different world now,” said Sarah Hurley, a Carmel resident and founder of Kristy’s House, a nonprofit that serves women who feel trapped in commercial sexual exploitation. “(Kids are) connected with the entire world. The same parent who would say, ‘I wouldn’t let my daughter have a boy in her room with the door closed’ would give her a phone and let her have it in there all night.”

Kristy’s House serves adults, but Hurley said many of her clients were drawn into prostitution before turning 18, never realizing they had been trafficked. Hurley has served growing numbers of victims since founding Kristy’s House in 2015, as has Ascent 121, which offers advocacy and services for teens who have survived trafficking.

Jessup

The Carmel-based nonprofit has seen its services double in recent years. Chief Operating Officer Megan Jessup said it served approximately 50 girls in 2015, 100 girls in 2016 and is on pace to see growth this year, as well.

“I believe those numbers will continue to climb,” she said, adding that she doesn’t believe incidents of human trafficking are growing at this rate, rather groups are better educated on how to identify the victims.

While no parent expects his or her children to fall victim to human trafficking, there are several steps they can take to protect them. It starts with not being afraid to address the issue, Jessup said.

“Sometimes we want to shelter our kids, and we want to wrap them up and protect them from some of those horrors, but part of that is because we don’t believe that it happens in our town and city,” Jessup said. “The more we shelter them and don’t have those conversations, we’re doing a disservice to our youth, because it just kind of blindsides them.”

Providing a safe and supportive home environment is also key. Hurley said that traffickers often seek young girls who may feel ignored or undervalued.

“They can almost smell desperation,” she said. “They take time to groom that person and make them feel loved and wanted.”

While parents play the biggest role in protecting their own children, many experts believe it will take a shift in how the culture views sexuality to deter human trafficking on a large scale.

“We’re outraged that these things happen, but then we support our hypersexualized culture,” Hurley said. “We’re just inundated every day with sex, really cheap casual sex, and a message that it should be free and casual and empowering. We buy the lie and we support that, but then we get really upset when we hear about the rabbit hole it goes down.”

Hope for Human Trafficking

The fourth annual Hope for Human Trafficking symposium will take place from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. March 4 at Christ the Savior Lutheran Church, 10500 E. 126th St. in Fishers.

A Better Tomorrow, Ascent 121 and Lutheran Child and Family Services are partnering to coordinate the free event, which is designed to raise awareness of human trafficking in Indiana and educate visitors on what they can do to help keep children safe.

Attendees can learn about the issue and how to identify people who may be targeted from service providers, clergy and criminal justice agencies.

Lauren Baney, a graduate student at Indiana University, founded the event in 2014. She was inspired to take action after first learning about human trafficking as a student at Ball State. Since then, she believes that more people are beginning to understand the problem and how it affects central Indiana.

“I felt people thought of it as a third-world issue that happens in developing countries, not here,” she said. “Now I think people are starting to recognize it’s happening here in the U.S.as we’ve gotten more media attention, but I think people still see that as low-income areas and not here in Hamilton County.”

Keeping kids safe

Taylor

“Carmel Clay Schools would advise parents to be very diligent in communicating with their children from a very young age on appropriate social media and internet usage. Additionally, it is extremely important for parents to strictly monitor their child’s access to electronic devices, certain websites and social media sites. If expectations are set early and security settings are set to the highest level, children and young adults learn to safely navigate these sites.” Courtney Taylor, Director of Communications at Carmel Clay Schools

Orem

“Watch computer and technology use, especially social media sites as these are often used to recruit victims in sex trafficking. Know with whom your children associate and let them know the reason for wanting to know these people. Establish lines of communication with your children so they aren’t ashamed or embarrassed to approach parents with questions and issues. Look for signs such as changes in behaviors – emotional issues, substance abuse, self-harming, academic issues, running away; social changes – withdrawal, isolation, change in friends, loss of interest in activities; and changes in emotions,” Bryant Orem, HCSO

“Pay attention to online uses and who (kids) are talking to. I feel like I know a lot about how dangerous the internet can be, but I feel at the same time I have no idea,” Lauren Baney

What are the warning signs?

  • Shows signs of physical, emotional, sexual or mental abuse, neglect or malnourishment
  • Has a “boyfriend” who is much older
  • Has inconsistencies in his/her story, does not know his/her whereabouts or address, or appears confused
  • Is accompanied by an older male or female who speaks for them
  • Has tattoos he/she may be hesitant to show or explain, including words that indicate ownership, such as daddy, daddy’s girl/boy, padrote, production, the name of the trafficker, or a bar code
  • Displays unusual anxiety, fear, or inhibition around law enforcement
  • Is resistant to seeking or receiving basic medical services
  • Has not received medical care for infection or injuries
  • Has recurrent sexually transmitted infections or numerous previous pregnancies
  • Talks about engaging in developmentally unusual or inappropriate sexual behaviors or practices
  • Is frequently absent from school or inconsistently attends activities
  • Resides with a group of youth who are frequently escorted or transported by an unrelated adult

Source: Family and Youth Services Bureau

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