Risk factors for sex trafficking increase due to pandemic

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INDIANAPOLIS — The coronavirus pandemic is increasing the number of risk factors related to human trafficking.

Indiana data doesn’t show an increase or decrease in cases but that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening more often.

Police assume the method is changing.

“One of the misnomers about human trafficking, especially into the sex trade, is that these people are just snatched off the street and forced into this,” said Indiana State Police Sgt. John Perrine.

He said the reality is that most of these cases begin online or more disturbingly, in the home.

“The number one trafficker is a family member, the number two trafficker is a love interest,” explained Kellie Leeper, the Director of Communications and Development at Ascent 121, which provides clinical recovery services for victims of sex trafficking.

Leeper said the risk factors of this crime have increased during the pandemic.

“We have lots of food insecurity, housing insecurity, people losing their jobs, right? It’s because of those heightened vulnerabilities– that’s why we know this is especially a problem during this pandemic,” said Leeper.

While Indiana isn’t seeing an increase or decrease in cases, officials warn that’s just the instances we know about.

That’s why awareness is so important, especially since children are online more often for virtual schooling.

“They may be communicating with someone via a chat room, via a game,” explained Sgt. Perrine.

ISP recommend having a conversation with your children about what to look out for.

“No good trusting adult will ask a child to keep a secret,” said Perrine.

But it doesn’t stop with parents. Any member of the public can be a useful tool to solve human trafficking crimes.

“We need people out there to be our eyes and ears and report anything that’s suspicious anything that just doesn’t make sense,” said Perrine.

Recently— there has been a growing movement online about bringing awareness to human trafficking. Organizations like Ascent 121 encourage people to do more than just share a hashtag.

“What we suggest that they do is connect with their local agencies that do this work,” said Leeper.

Some of those organizations include, Indiana Coalition to End Sexual Assault and Human Trafficking, Purchased, Indiana Youth Services Association, Southern Indiana Human Trafficking Coalition, and Anti Trafficking Network of Northeast Indiana.

We asked the Marion County Prosecutors Office to weigh in on what it has seen so far this year when it comes to human trafficking cases.

Deputy Prosecutor Katie Melnick said, “We have multiple trafficking investigations underway. This includes sex trafficking as well as labor trafficking. Because they are in the investigative stages we cannot release information concerning the status or exact number of those investigations. Many of these investigations are also targeting multiple suspects so it’s hard to put an exact number on the amount of investigations underway at any given time.”

We also asked Melnick if there is concern for more cases during this time.

“Absolutely,” said Melnick. “Any time we don’t have children being in almost-daily contact with school and school personnel we lose a vital resource in the fight against human trafficking. We definitely rely on teachers, school personnel, medical personnel, DCS and other outside adults to report concerning circumstances. Right now, with many children involved in remote learning, we have kids sitting on computers or tablets, which also allows traffickers to access those children. Many traffickers use the internet as the initial point of contact with trafficking victims.”

She said the public will be vital moving forward.

“If you see something, say something. In Indiana, we are all mandatory reporters required to notify DCS when we believe child abuse may be occurring. Don’t be afraid to pick up the phone and notify the authorities if something concerns you,” said Melnick. “It is only through a community effort  and vigilance that we can effectively combat human trafficking. These victims are frequently some of the most vulnerable members of society and they need the help of the community to break free of their traffickers.”

Due to jury trial postponements because of COVID-19, Melnick said there has been a delay in convictions.

“We unfortunately haven’t had the opportunity to be in trial seeking justice for these victims so far this year. There are a few cases that were ready for trial but they were postponed,” said Melnick. “With jury trials resuming next week, we sincerely hope to be back in the courtroom very soon fighting for justice.”

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(This story was originally published on Aug. 20, 2020)

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