Living in a rural community where we know most people in town, it is hard to think about big city problems like human trafficking happening here. But, consider this. The opioid epidemic, before becoming an epidemic, was considered to be more of an urban problem than relative to Cambridge City, Centerville or Hagerstown. Now, no one is exempt.

I have been working with some agencies that have heightened my awareness of human trafficking – innocent children (and adults) lured into the sex trade industry. So, when an intern from the Indiana Trafficking Victims Assistance Program (ITVAP) stopped by our office about a regional law enforcement training program happening that afternoon, I shifted priorities and was able to drop in before it was over. I wish I had heard the entire presentation, and encourage any group that need speakers to invite ITVAP.

I didn’t attend the program to ‘report’ on it as that is not my primary role at Hometown Media Group. However, I did talk to participants and learned that our Cambridge City Police Department sponsored the event and at least 50% of their staff attended. Kudos to them for recognizing this is an important topic and training may one day help them save an innocent victim. While weather kept some invited agencies away, I also met representatives from Rush and Union Counties, as well as the Indiana State Police. Again, kudos to every agency that deemed this a priority.

Grooming is key to luring kids into this life. Traffickers excel at asking questions and courting kids they deem vulnerable. It is not just girls that are trafficked, and it is not just men seeking out victims. A training video was used which I will share a little about, using pseudonyms for names.

The victim in the video, 16 year-old Jane was working an after school job at (pseudonym employer), Tony’s Convenience Store. Nineteen year-old Sue began dropping in at Tony’s, complimenting Jane who was flattered that an older girl even noticed her – let alone thought her hair was cute or she had a great smile. Sue visited Tony’s often when Jane was working, and built a relationship. Jane looked up to this older girl who: paid attention to her, dressed nice, was confident and seemed to genuinely care about her. Jane was impressed by jewelry Sue wore and all the money she seemed to have.

Sue continued to pursue Jane and one day after Jane complimented her earrings, Sue offered to take Jane shopping. Again, Jane was flattered! Sue ended up showering Jane with gifts and this was all part of grooming a vulnerable girl. Eventually, Sue shared her involvement in the sex trade and explained to Jane this was her source of money. Sue told Jane the amount of money she earned depended on what she was willing to do.

Long story short, Sue built Jane’s trust so that Jane agreed to go to a party with Sue. Jane doesn’t remember much, but realized later she had a drink and it must have been spiked with a drug. When she awoke, there was a violent man on top of her who said this would be the last time she ever told him ‘no.’ Jane was horrified and very scared, but felt there was no one in her life who would believe or take her seriously – at home or school. She felt she had no way out. This was all part of the traffickers’ grooming. They identified a vulnerable child, isolated her, gave her hope, and then victimized her.

Jane had an unstable home, was insecure – with few friends – and did not enjoy school. You might say, doesn’t every teenager go through a phase of being unhappy at home/with their parents? I would say ‘most’ do. Even those with strong support and a stable home life get upset being told what to do because teens know everything!

So, let’s consider a young boy, with a stable and supportive home life, who plays online video games with others. We don’t really know who the “others” are. The training I witnessed provided an example of Child #1 playing an online video game with another supposed Child #2/trafficker. Of course, they converse. Before you know it the trafficker had gotten the name, address and phone number of Child #1. Additionally, the trafficker was able to learn in just a short time that Child #1 had had a fight with their Mother “again” that day. Child #1 said he hated his Mother, again revealing vulnerability to the trafficker.

Another issue… there are kids getting trafficked or prostituted to support drug habits, and they don’t know how to get out. With the current opioid epidemic, this concern is bigger than ever. (Unfortunately, I recently learned of parents trafficking their own child to support their drug habit). Trafficking is a tragic issue we should all be aware of and watching out for.

As I listened to this training program, I recalled a recent visit to an Indianapolis convenience store/truck stop to pick up a bottle of water for the road. I couldn’t take my eyes off this couple that did NOT seem to go together. The man was probably in is mid 50’s or 60’s, unshaven, and appeared dirty. The young woman appeared to be 25 or under, wearing a great deal of makeup and jewelry, and while she was smiling the entire time, she appeared glassy-eyed. They held hands as they walked around the store. I now realize it was an opportunity to ‘see something, call 911.’ I wish I had.

I have grandchildren that will eventually become teenagers. I recognize they could one day be vulnerable and need someone to call 911. We must do everything possible to be informed about things going on around us, and never get so comfortable as to think ‘it doesn’t happen here.’

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