In your backyard: The realities of human trafficking

Special Report

FARMERSBURG, Ind. (WTWO/WAWV) — Eric Harris said he was first exploited at the age of 10 while living in California.

“That’s when my mom started introducing me to the pedophilic culture by having supposedly coworkers come over and crossing my personal boundaries,” Harris recalled.

Harris said he was depressed after losing his grandparents, who were his primary guardians, and began using methamphetamines at a young age. He was sent to rehab for 90 days, something he referred to as a “timeout”, and when he got out, his mother had moved in with the coworkers, including a man who was a predator.

Harris said he doesn’t know “what kind of deal was made” between the man and Harris’ mother, but the man began what Harris called the “grooming process” by making Harris feel like with him, Harris could finally have the family dynamics he was missing.

Harris eventually decided to stay with the trafficker, rather than his mother, due to the manipulative lifestyle the trafficker had created for the boy.

“That’s when he slowly started sexualizing the relationship,” Harris shared.

Human trafficking: an ongoing “subculture” of society

Harris’ trafficking experiences may have taken place decades ago, but human trafficking is still permeating communities throughout the country, and throughout Indiana.

According to the 2020 Indiana State Report on Human Trafficking, 157 Indiana human trafficking cases were reported to the National Human Trafficking Hotline. The number was an increase of 19% from 2018.

These numbers are not reflective of the actual trafficking instances in Indiana; for example, the NHTH received 40 reports of trafficking of minors in 2019. Ascent 121, an Indiana organization that works with survivors of sex trafficking, provided services for 117 minors in the same year.

“The reason why that report is different from the numbers that we serve throughout the year is all of those numbers that Polaris reports is from their national trafficking tip hotline,” Sarah Hurley, Program Manager at Ascent 121, said, “And so that represents a small fraction of the number of the clients that we serve. So we get referrals and from a lot of different places and only a small number of those are from the tip line.”

“Indiana doesn’t really have a centralized mechanism of reporting,” Hurley explained, “We do the best we can.”

Kate Kimmer, Statewide Anti-Trafficking Coordinator for the ICESA & IPATH Taskforce, said the discrepancy in numbers does have an effect on funding for human trafficking organizations.

“That discrepancy matters when you ask a funder for (money); you know, think about ILS (Indiana Legal Services) applying to a grant,” Kimmer said, “If the only numbers they had was the hotline, a funder is going to look at them and go, well, why do you need a big old program, right?”

Eric Harris shares his story:

There are many reasons why human trafficking goes underreported, including a lack of self-identifying in those being trafficked.

“Part of the reason that people don’t self identify and don’t recognize what’s happened in their own situation immediately is because oftentimes their trafficker is known to them,” Hurley explained, “Due to the nature of coercion and manipulation, there are a lot of things that go into making somebody vulnerable.”

Kimmer added that there is a general lack of trust for people who have been trafficked.

“What happens for particularly sex trafficking survivors is this kind of shift of how they feel about the world, which makes sense, because they kind of feel like everybody’s in on it,” Kimmer said, “And I mean, wouldn’t you?”

Traffickers are often able to force people to engage in criminal activities as part of their coercion.

“It’s a powerful, actually very powerful, coercive mechanism, right? To be able to say, well, they’re going to say, you’re in the wrong, they’re going to arrest you,” Kimmer explained, voicing one common mantra of a trafficker, “Go ahead and tell somebody, walk out the front door, see what happens. I’m not going to get in trouble.”

A long-awaited breakthrough

Eric Harris faced several challenges on his journey to escape the world of trafficking.

He was in and out of the criminal justice system, was made a ward of the state at one point, and said he was exploited for labor during his time in foster care, before finding himself back with his mother at the age of 18.

“That’s kind of where I dipped deeply into criminal activity,” Harris said, “You know, forms of, exchanging services to get what I needed to survive.”

Kimmer said this behavior is not uncommon among young trafficking survivors.

“A lot of times we get angry with these kids because a lot of times the behaviors that they display are, um, frankly not really fun to deal with.”

Harris was serving a prison sentence when he said he had a breakthrough or, as he called it, a “moment of clarity.” He enrolled in school, eventually finding his calling in social work.

Then, another breakthrough moment.

“The turning point of my life, which was able for me to let go of a lot of the harm that was done to me is when I dealt with my biological mom’s death,” Harris said, “For like, once in my life, I let go of everything. And I, I told her I forgave her for everything she did.”

Child bride turned advocate

Genevieve Meyer said she was also exploited at a young age while living in California.

“My story begins when I was about 11 or 10 years old,” Meyer shared, “I had a 37-year-old boyfriend who owned the home that we were living in, that we were renting from him and nobody was really working and everybody just kind of looked the other way.”

Another young girl heard Meyer talking about this relationship, told her mother, and the situation was reported to officials. But that’s not where Meyer’s trafficking experiences ended.

“That’s a common misconception is that people are only trafficked once. And once you get out of it, if you’re lucky enough to get out of it, then, you know, your life just goes back to normal or whatever, you know, it was before whatever you choose. And that’s not the case. I was actually forced to marry my 43-year-old perpetrator when I was only 15.”

A marriage that was actually legal, and not unique in nature.

“Right now, we’re up to about 300,000 children that were married in the US since 2010. And so these are all legal marriages,” Meyer said.

The roadblocks to independence for child brides:

In Indiana 16 is the minimum age under which someone can be married under Hoosier law. Meyer said pregnancies only heighten the issue, with families approving teenage marriages because of the pregnancy.

“Fourteen, 15-year-old girls, pregnant girls, that’s not a green light for a marriage license,” Meyer stressed, “That’s a red flag that possibly something’s going wrong.”

Meyer said examining these situations is critical.

“These are often girls that are marrying adult men,” Meyer said, “So they’ve (the adult men) already had the opportunity to graduate from high school. They already have probably learned a skill or a trade or have some kind of, you know, work history there; probably it’s their name on the lease. It’s their, you know, car in the driveway it’s their money in the bank account.”

Meyer said these situations often lead to young girls entering adulthood with multiple children as well, as they often are not given the proper family planning information while under the control of their trafficker.

Meyer has gone on to get her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees and founded the Resiliency Foundation, an organizations helping fight child marriage and exploitation.

Meyer said the belief that human trafficking can’t or won’t happen to one’s loved ones is just one misconception about trafficking that can be dangerous.

What are some common misconceptions about human trafficking?

As Meyer mentioned, one of the most damaging stereotypes surrounding human trafficking is the idea that trafficking isn’t happening in one’s community.

“The reality is these kids are sitting in class with your kids. They’re sitting in the pew next to you at church,” Kimmer said.

FBI Special Agent Beth Carlson added that the stereotypical imagery surrounding trafficking does not help to bring awareness.

“Kids that are getting stolen out of parking, lots, tied up in the back of vans and then are chained to basement walls. That is not what human trafficking is,” Carlson said.

The misconception that big events, like the Indianapolis 500, draw in more traffickers can lead to people overlooking what is happening the rest of the year.

“I could take you out today and show you just as many victims of trafficking as I would when the Indianapolis 500 comes into town,” Carlson said. “What we see is that there’s an increase with larger events because of the magnitude of the event. It’s not that there’s an increase because of the actual incident of human trafficking.”

Carlson said law enforcement often use big events as a time to highlight trafficking concerns, but from a statistical standpoint, there is no sudden overnight increase in the tendency or likelihood of human trafficking.

The manipulative relationship between a trafficker and a trafficked individual:

“Most cases are that these people are trafficked by individuals they know,” Carlson pointed out. “They’re just a vulnerable community that individuals see as an advantage to exploit and it doesn’t take an Indianapolis 500 event to do so.”

When it comes to interstates, like I-70, Carlson said they play a role by increasing access to hotels where traffickers can take individuals or find individuals.

The place people should be looking is within their own communities, Carlson said.

Kimmer shared that one third of human trafficking incidents occur within families, echoing the sentiment that these situations are often happening right in front of the everyday person.

What warning signs can the everyday citizen watch out for?

Here is a list of “warning signs” as shared by survivors, advocates, and investigators interviewed for this story

  • Same child/person coming in for STD testing or unexplained frequent medical care / ER visits
  • Child/person doesn’t have many personal belongings
  • Child is not attending school
  • Child acts out at school / in public and exhibits behavior similar to PTSD
  • Child/person doesn’t seem to know their surroundings
  • Child/person is submissive in casual conversation or deflects to another person to answer simple questions for them
  • Child is hoarding food at school
  • Child is coming to school disheveled / wearing dirty clothes often
  • Child has a parent in and out of the criminal justice system
  • Teen is entering marriage with person who is multiple years older than them

Is sex work considered human trafficking?

The topic of sex work often comes up when discussing human trafficking with investigators, advocates and survivors.

Stefanie Jeffers is the founder and CEO of Grit into Grace, a non-profit in Indianapolis that works with adult women who have experienced sex trafficking “through the lens of commercial, sexual exploitation and sex work”.

The importance of seeing a survivor’s worth:

Jeffers is a survivor of sex trafficking herself, and said it’s very important for her that the women she works with receive compassion from the community.

“They are mothers and sisters and daughters and friends and nieces and aunts, and they have just been through circumstances that most people couldn’t survive,” Jeffers said.

Grit into Grace has a “Dream House” located in downtown Indianapolis where women can go to receive resources under different “phases” of care and community.

Under the first phase, the women get basic needs fulfilled such as hygiene and clothing. Under the second phase, there is a deeper connection made and case managers get involved with the women.

“Each survivor gets to define what her journey looks like,” she said. “And we give them the dignity to make choices and the dignity of risk as well.”

There are also field trips and various forms of recovery-based programming for the women to move into the next phase on their lives out of the realm of sexual exploitation.

Jeffers encouraged people to consider each person’s story before passing judgment on his/her choices.

“It is easy to say this child had, this was a child and no one should have done that to them, but what happens when they grow up? They don’t lose value because they grow up, you know, so today’s prostitute person was trafficking at five.”

From an investigative perspective, Agent Carlson said prostitution is not human trafficking.

“We have to be able to prove that the subject or target knowingly recruited enticed, harbored transported, provided, obtained, advertised, maintain patronized or solicited, um, an individual financially from a commercial sex act through force, fraud or coercion,” Carlson explained, “You can’t force fraud or coerce yourself to do something, right?”

Jeffers made her own argument for some sex work being a form of trafficking.

“It’s important to recognize that people will say that sex work is a choice, and for, for some people it is, I recognize that,” Jeffers said, “But for the women that I work with and, and for myself included, if your choice is something really bad and another something really bad, and you have to pick the lesser of those two evils. That is not really choice.”

How are trafficking cases investigated?

Agent Carlson, who works at the field office in Indianapolis, said most federal level referrals come from partnerships with local law enforcement and non-government agencies.

After those referrals are received, investigators partner with agencies to determine if the case needs to be handled on the federal, state, or local level. They are also working immediately to make sure the individual is safe and can be interviewed.

Then, it’s time to check out the individual’s story.

“Say, for instance, maybe they, the individual, is saying that they were trafficked at a hotel,” Carlson said, “We’re going to try and get the hotel registries and things along those lines through of course, legal process, subpoenas search warrants, and then comb through all of that evidence again, to make sure that the elements of the crime can be proven.”

Carlson said if a violation is found, arrest warrants are issued and then the prosecution process begins.

Prosecutions are handled at the federal level by the United States Attorney’s Office, which works with the investigators to prepare for trial.

Many trafficking cases involve minors. So, how is an investigation different when working with minor survivors versus adult survivors?

The difference in investigating child trafficking cases vs. adult cases:

“At a federal level, a victim to us is a victim,” Carlson said, “The difference from an adult to a child are going to come down to just a couple of small differences. It’s not going to change my investigative methods and how I proceed in a case.”

Sometimes, investigators struggle with survivors being part of DCS or guardians of the state, making it more difficult to get permission to interview the individual, as they can’t consent for themselves.

Carlson says another difference in cases involving children is the aspect of force, fraud or coercion, which does not need to be proven if the survivor is under 18. The investigators do need to prove, however, that the target had a “reasonable opportunity to observe that the individual was a juvenile”.

“In those situations, like maybe even if a girl says, ‘well, I’m 18’, and that would be their defense. ‘Well, I thought she was 18’, okay, but she also told you that she ran away from her foster care. Well, who’s in foster care? Children under the age of 18.”

The sentencing guidelines for trafficking cases involving children are as follows: if a survivor is under the age of 14, the trafficker, if found guilty, could face 15 years to life in prison. If the survivor is between 14 and 18 years old, and the trafficker is found guilty, they face 10 years to life in prison.

Efforts have been made in recent years to help with the issue of human trafficking in Indiana.

In response to the official introduction of human trafficking as a crime in 2000, the federal government created federal-level prosecutor roles in each state to help with starting a multidisciplinary task force.

Indiana’s IPATH Task Force has been around since 2006.

Advocates said, like with reporting, the process of convicting traffickers often results in underrepresentation of accurate trafficking case data. Traffickers are sometimes convicted of other crimes related to the trafficking, such as drug charges, which are easier to convict.

One of Genevieve Meyer’s traffickers, a landlord who abused her, was charged with gross sexual imposition in Ohio, a felony charge in the state, and spent 180 days in county jail and 2 years on probation.

None of Eric Harris’ traffickers were ever prosecuted.

Two recent obstacles for investigators, and anyone hoping to end trafficking, are the COVID-19 pandemic and the surge in online activity in young people.

How has the pandemic affected trafficking?

Agent Carlson said the COVID-19 pandemic has altered the ability for people to report human trafficking, because less people are interacting with their neighbors, co-workers and other community members.

“As far as law enforcement and reporting, we actually have not seen a increase in the amounts of cases that we’ve seen for human trafficking,” Carlson said, “The people that in the community that would be our eyes and ears and would be reporting that have been forced to stay at home.”

Kate Kimmer said the pandemic hit households where trafficking was happening similarly to how it affected households where domestic and child abuse were happening.

“Normally folks can go to work or go to school and escape that violence for a period of time,” Kimmer said, “During COVID, many people could not do that. And so they’re stuck in this home with folks, and just kind of experiencing this cycle over and over again with no connection.”

Why are human trafficking cases underrepresented?

Meanwhile, connections online are being overlooked by some parents.

Genevieve Meyer urged parents to watch their child’s Internet use and be conscious of any “friends” made online.

“Children are being lured literally out of their bedrooms by people that they think are their age or their friends online,” Meyer said, “Parents think this isn’t gonna happen to us, but it happens to anybody, no matter what your zip code is, your educational level, how much money you have in your bank account, it can absolutely happen to your child.”

Agent Carlson echoed Meyer’s sentiment, saying the Internet is just another place for predators to look for vulnerable people.

“From a standpoint of the Internet, again, what we’ve seen is that gives us an avenue for trafficking,” Carlson said.

“Be recklessly kind”

So, how can people help end the tragic and complicated issue of human trafficking?

Eric Harris said to get to the root of the trafficking, we have to all put on our “sociological hats” and think about the most vulnerable in our population. He added that investing in the youth is essential to ending this tragic cycle.

“My trafficking experience happened 33 years ago and nothing’s changed,” Harris said, “Until we start reinvesting in our kids and the future, we’re never gonna really come to an end to this issue.”

What’s one missing piece for Hoosier trafficking survivors?

Sarah Hurley said Ascent 121 is working on mentorship programming.

“One of the things that we are working on as an agency is developing a mentoring program, a survivor mentoring program, therapeutic mentoring program. And the intent of that is to kind of bridge the gap, between the therapeutic services and the kind of actual day-to-day integration of those tools and the therapy that’s being done.”

Harris also pointed to the importance of a sense of community among survivors.

“I didn’t come to the realization that I was a survivor of human trafficking until I started going to a junior college out in California,” he said. “And that’s because I connected with other survivors of human trafficking.”

Kate Kimmer said IPATH and ICESA are currently on the puzzle piece of housing, as many survivors find several barriers to getting solid housing, and many need a longer period of recovery than shelters can offer.

Kimmer’s biggest advice is for people to “be recklessly kind” to others, as it will go far with survivors.

“I just don’t know what it would be like to live in a world where I would genuinely be surprised that one other human in my vicinity treated me like a human,” Kimmer said, “We all have the opportunity to be a part of, we can be that one person.”

And, when it comes to stories of trafficking, Harris has one main message.

“Believe survivors, no matter what.”

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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