NEW ALBANY — There’s a story Judge Kimberly Dowling tells when she wants people to realize how easy it is for a child to be sex trafficked.
It’s about a girl from a middle class family in Carmel. She started talking to a guy online. They chatted for months — building a rapport.
Then, when the girl’s parents told her they wouldn’t drive her to apply for a job, she let the guy take her instead.
“It took her parents two years to find her,” Dowling said.
It would take another few years of her running away, being brought back and receiving professional help before she was finally free.
The pervasiveness of sex trafficking, how to stop it and what the state is doing to help were the main points of Dowling’s keynote speech at the Second Annual Southern Indiana Human Trafficking Awareness Conference at Indiana University Southeast on Monday.
The all-day conference was hosted by the Southern Indiana Human Trafficking Task Force and attended by around 200 people.
“The biggest thing is that I want to see people get involved and see people help get the word out about what human trafficking really is,” said Yvonne Moore, chair of the task force, about the purpose of the conference.
Dowling, a circuit court judge in Delaware County, was chosen as the conference’s keynote speaker for her work with the state and her county on curbing sex trafficking.
When Dowling first got interested in the subject a few years ago, many people didn’t believe sex trafficking was a problem in Indiana.
“They probably thought, it happens during the Super Bowl, but it isn’t happening in my community. It’s not happening in rural communities,” Dowling said.
That, she said, couldn’t be further from the truth.
Sex trafficking, just one of the forms of human trafficking, is a commercial sex act that is induced by force, fraud or coercion. A child doesn’t have to be forced, defrauded or coerced into performing a commercial sex act to be considered a victim of sex trafficking.
It’s estimated by the U.S. Department of State that between 14,500 and 17,500 people are trafficked in the country annually, although Dowling said most numbers involving trafficking are conservative.
It’s not known exactly how many people are trafficked in Indiana, but the Indiana Protection for Abused and Trafficked Humans task force received 520 tips about cases of human trafficking in 2016 — up from 130 in 2014.
Sex trafficking occurs in all sorts of areas, Dowling said: rural, as well as in cities.
People are at risk of being sex trafficked if they’re homeless or living in poverty, if they have been involved in the child welfare system, or if they have a history of childhood abuse, family conflict or violence.
They’re also more likely to be sex trafficked if they’re experiencing things common to many teenagers: They want to be independent or to test boundaries, they feel misunderstood or as if their parents don’t care or they're attracted to consumer goods.
There are a few things that members of the public can look out for to spot a victim of sex trafficking. There are physical indicators, such as malnourishment and multiple STDs and pregnancies. Some pimps even brand their victims, often with a tattoo on their neck of a guy’s name or the word “daddy.” Tracking chips are becoming more popular in sex trafficking victims, as well. They’re often found on victims' hands between the forefinger and the thumb, as well as underneath their arms and on their necks.
A good question for a person to ask themselves about a suspected victim is whether or not someone is benefitting from them in any way — either through money or something else of value.
The state of Indiana is doing a few things to combat sex trafficking, Dowling said. The state legislature recently passed a bill to turn Indiana into a safe harbor state, which would protect juveniles from being charged with prostitution. The bill has yet to be signed by the governor.
A subcommittee of the Commission on Improving the Status of Children is also starting the process of installing pilot programs in counties across the state, including Clark County, that would have probation officers, health care professionals and law enforcement officers report suspected victims of sex trafficking to the Department of Child Services.
Events, such as the human trafficking awareness conference, are helping, too, Dowling said to those who attended.
“It’s because of folks like you, being here and learning about the red flags and learning about what this issue is that you can now go home and start looking for the red flags and helping us to identify these kids,” she said.