Child sex trafficking is a hidden but persistent form of child abuse in Indiana and nationwide.
Recent cases have hit the headlines in Lafayette, Terre Haute, Indianapolis, Fort Wayne and Muncie. While awareness and prosecution rates are rising, the young victims of this horrific crime need our support and assistance. That means we must better understand how trafficking happens, the resources available to intervene and our responsibility to take action and protect Hoosier children.
The commercial sexual exploitation of children happens when someone buys, sells or trades something for sexual acts involving minors. This may include selling a child for sex acts, child pornography or sexually explicit videos or pictures. Traffickers also may prey on runaways by promising them food, clothing or shelter in exchange for sex acts.
It’s difficult to understand why child sex trafficking ever happens. The recruiter and/or trafficker typically profits from the exchange. Other reasons include power, customer demand and under-reporting.
While we hear about these crimes happening on the street, in homes and even through some businesses, more cases now happen via social media and the internet. This technology has removed some of the geographic barriers. Melissa Snow, a child sex trafficking expert from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, said the change means traffickers can “literally throw hundreds of lines in the water.”
Recruiters target teens because they’re more easily influenced, less experienced and more vulnerable. Victims are often runaways or homeless, have likely experienced prior abuse or violence and may lack confidence or struggle to fit in with peers. As with many youth-related issues, teachers may be a first line of defense.
To help schools identify potential victims, the U.S. Department of Education outlines indicators including students who lack control over their schedule, have unexplained absences, show bruises or signs of physical trauma and have seemingly rehearsed answers to questions.
This heightened awareness means more cases of child sex trafficking are being identified and prosecuted. Media attention has also increased, bringing both positive and negative impacts. Experts say one upside is that more people and organizations are involved in awareness and prevention efforts. However, they note that movies and TV shows often portray an unrealistic picture of trafficking that focuses on kidnappings.
Aubrey Lloyd, a trafficking survivor and victim advocate with Uncaged Ministries, says less than 10 percent of child sex trafficking cases involve kidnapping. She says most cases — including her own — start with someone building an intense relationship with the child, spending significant time exploiting the young person’s insecurities.
Tragically, it’s not uncommon for victims to be exposed to trafficking by their own families. Robin Donaldson of the Indiana Youth Services Association says a large share of Indiana’s traffickers are parents who may be addicted to heroin or meth, and trade their own children for their next fix.
Every adult Hoosier is a legally mandated reporter of child abuse and neglect. You can do so by calling 1-800-800-5556. Another way we can all address this crime is by sharing accurate information, prevention strategies and victim resources. We must educate kids about the potential risks of sharing too much information on social media and actively monitor our children’s online activity.
If a child is in urgent need of assistance, contact police or Child Protective Services. For more information on human trafficking, call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center at-1-888-373-7888 or the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children at 1-800-THE-LOST (1-800-843-5678).
By talking to our children, raising awareness, expanding resources, supporting the victims and reporting abuse, we can make it clear that our kids are not for sale.
Tami Silverman is the president and CEO of the Indiana Youth Institute. Send comments to