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Attraction becomes an unbreakable contract, leaving kids hopeless and devoted

From the SOLD: An ongoing series on human trafficking series
  • 5 min to read

ANDERSON — All over Indiana, including Madison County, children are sold into the sex trade. They are trafficked by their parents, family friends, or someone who lured them.

Many exploited children were victims long before they met their trafficker. Eighty-five percent were victims of incest as girls, 90 percent had been physically abused and 62 percent were frequently hit, slapped, pushed, grabbed, or had objects thrown at them by a member of their household, according to the 2016 State of Indiana Human Trafficking Report (HTR).

In the best case scenario, the victim is under the spell of their trafficker, or pimp, but has a loving family and law enforcement officials working to get them back. This victim will fight to stay with their pimp, leaving her family stupefied.

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No matter their background, victims of domestic minor sex trafficking do not self-identify as victims. They will stay in the lifestyle more afraid of a life without their trafficker than a life of enslavement. This is called trauma bonding, a bond nearly impossible to break, according to HTR.

Fishing for prey

The internet has made recruitment a non-issue for traffickers. Most cellphone apps, even games, have direct messaging features, an easy way for predators to find a path into a girl's world, said Andrew Willman, FBI Special Agent for the Violent Crimes Against Child Task Force.

"They know who to look for, provide them with attention they don't get at home," he said. "They have access inside your house now."

Willmann, who worked on the Jared Fogle case, said these online relationships usually begin innocently through online chat. A predator will pose as a boyfriend or father figure to lure a victim.

"It starts relatively innocuously. He's her boyfriend, she trusts him," he said. "They meet in person, and it begins from there. Her loyalty for him grows."

The predator will overwhelm her with affection and attention, convincing her that she's better off with him. The trafficker will craft a dream life, and the victim will take the bait, Willmann aid.

"He'll say, 'Your friends and family aren't taking care of you. Let's run away together,'" he said. "And he'll take her to Chicago or Kentucky. She's gone."

Hook, line and sinker

In the first weeks or months of living with or dating their trafficker, who they often see as their significant other, the victim is inundated with love, gifts, money and freedom, TRUHarbor Director Dr. Katrina Mallory said. TRUHarbor is an inpatient facility in New Castle tailored to rehabilitate survivors of child sex trafficking.

"The pimp treats her like a queen, he gives her everything she's ever wanted or needed," she said. "She has this amazing loyalty to him. She'll do anything for him."

The first time she exchanges sex acts for money, it's presented to her as a huge favor to the trafficker, Mallory said. He will say they desperately need money.

"He'll say, 'Just this once,'" Mallory said. "'Do this for us.' She believes him."

SOLD Reeling them in

According to Indiana State Law, anyone under the age of 18 who exchanges sex acts for money, drugs, shelter or food is considered a victim of child sex trafficking.

TRUHarbor treats girls ages 11-17 and Ascent 121, an Indianapolis program tailored for victims of minor sex trafficking, treats children ages 13-18.

"One of the girls who we've treated said she was introduced to the world of sex slavery at 7 years old," Ascent 121 Director Megan Jessup, said.

Sometimes pimps will ease victims into the lifestyle by taking pornographic photos or having them watch the door while another victim is engaged in a sex act, according to the Human Trafficking Hotline.

Jessup said society often assumes older victims have an option to consent, but she said that's not true.

"There's a misconception that older teens, getting in the 15, 16, 17-year-old range, choose to stay, or that they're 'bad kids,'" she said. "They're not bad kids. This is not a choice. This is coercion."

Pimps view their victims as a commodity, something they can sell several times a day, every single day. In order to keep her loyal to her pimp, the victim needs to develop a trauma bond with him, Jessup said.

"It's a perfect storm of factors and exploitation, creating an illusion of love," she said. "He will capitalize on that vulnerability. The girls are soaking this up like, 'Save me, be my savior.'"

Bonded for life

Pimps will "break" their victims through physical abuse, isolation, starvation and emotional manipulation. Because victims often have a background of trauma and usually display post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms, they are easily broken, according to the State of Indiana Human Trafficking Report.

A continuity of abuse will warp victims' mindsets. What used to feel scary now feels exciting and what used to feel manipulative now feels like love, Mallory said.

"She is now so connected with the lifestyle that this is just how life is," Mallory said. "If she's in a sex ring, that ring is her family. Everything before this no longer exists."

As a person who has been kidnapped eventually identifies with their captor, a victim will come to identify with their trafficker. Traumatic bonding and Stockholm Syndrome are virtually indiscernible, Mallory said.

“Our girls bonded to their trafficker much like a child might bond to an abusive parent. They still love that person, care about that person. They don’t want to see them get in trouble or go to prison," Mallory said.

While PTSD can occur after one traumatic event, Complex PTSD can occur after continual abuse over a period of time. C-PTSD changes a person's ability to regulate emotions, handle stress, process reality and decision making, and causes skewed perceptions of their abusers, according to HTR.

"Trauma bonds impact trafficking victims’ ability to identify and maintain healthy relationships, create a distrust of authority, such as social workers and law enforcement, and often cause them to act in ways that are protective of their exploiter," according to HTR.

If a victim is left alone in a restaurant while her pimp goes to the bathroom, she has a chance to escape. She often won't take it, Jessup said.

"Most victims don't self-identify as victims," Jessup said. "They almost never choose to report their pimps. They don't see it that way; they see someone who was trying to care of them."

The relationship between victim and trafficker is double-sided. The trafficker acts like the owner or employer of the victim, and also acts like an abusive boyfriend or lover to the victim, according to HTR.

For many of the victims, going home doesn't have anything better to offer. Ninety-five percent of victims are in the foster system, 89 percent of them have a history of running away and 75 percent of them have a history in juvenile detention, according to HTR.

"Most of our girls came from pretty awful home situations prior to being involved in trafficking," Mallory said. "For them, the trafficking situation might have been their only sense of family ever."

Eric is a full-time student at Anderson University, lives with his fiance in Anderson, loves Star Wars and listening to ska music. He has dedicated his life to helping other survivors of sex trafficking recover.

Escaping from a pimp is one thing, and escaping from the lifestyle entirely is another. Many victims are addicted to drugs, don't have strong family support systems and have lived transitional lives for an extended period of time, Mallory said.

TRUHarbor has a contingency plan for when girls run away from the safety of their inpatient treatment program, she said. They try to hold beds open for up to a month for girls who have run away in hopes they return.

"With our girls, it's not if they'll run away, it's when," Mallory said. "They're going to run back to their pimps, and we do our best to make sure we're ready for them when they come back."

Follow Laura Arwood on Twitter @lauraarwood or call 648-4284.