ANDERSON — A drive from Atlanta to Nashville to Louisville to Indianapolis to Chicago to Fort Wayne can be completed in one day.

Interstate 69, the highway that passes through Madison County, is a breeding ground for human trafficking.

This isn't a Dr. Phil episode. Masked assailants aren't jumping out of unmarked vans to capture girls on spring break in a faraway vacation spot. It happens here.

Actually, it happens so often that studies show human trafficking is a rapidly growing crime in Indiana. Phone tips reporting suspected human trafficking quadrupled from 2014, with 130 reports, to 2016, with 520 reports, according to the Indiana State Report on Human Trafficking 2016.

The 2017 report has not yet been released.

A particularly vulnerable — and under-reported — segment of trafficking is sex trafficking of juveniles.

The majority of sex trafficking of minors is familial; caregivers and immediate family sell their children or pimp them out in exchange for money or drugs, says Katrina Mallory, the director of TRU Harbor. Mallory has worked with sex trafficking survivors for more than five years, acting as an individual psychologist and a forensic psychologist as well as giving expert testimony on the subject in court.

"It’s not just an international problem," she said. "It’s happening here in Indiana. Parents, aunts, uncles, maybe only when you go to grandparents over the summer."

Mallory asked to pardon her bluntness when she made the analogy that to traffickers, children are just a commodity and their services are merely a transaction.

"You can only manufacture, distribute and use a drug one time. Then you have to go back through the process of cooking it and distributing it and packaging it," Mallory said. "With children, traffickers can sell that kid 10 times a day, year after year. That’s how traffickers look at our children, as a reusable commodity."

Traffickers organize meet-ups, control transport and employ recruits. Recruiters go out and find vulnerable children, mostly girls, to become victims, she said.

"One of my girls was recruited by an older woman who was the mother of the pimp. The older woman, she was very trusting, made her a meal, spent a lot of time with her and then just handed her off to her pimp. He was her pimp for the next five years," Mallory said.

Traffickers hold the money, control the ring and send out recruiters to coerce girls, by providing a supportive role in that girls' life. Recruitment takes one to three months, leading the girl to become entirely dependent on her pimp.

Minors are no longer prosecuted for prostitution as of 2017. Mallory said that while victims shouldn't be charged for the crimes committed against them, now it is difficult to get minors into programs where they can get help.

Available programs address crime, drug addictions and behavioral issues but aren't tailored for the specific needs of a trafficking victim, which is why Youth Opportunity Center and Mallory decided to open TRU Harbor.

TRU Harbor is a residential rehabilitation program for girls ages 11 to 18. The center, located in New Castle, is the only one of its kind in Indiana. The facility will be open in late June or early July, Mallory said.

The program is typically a year-long, indepth treatment including individual, group and family — if the family is viable — therapy. TRU Harbor staffs a full-time teacher with online curriculum to help residents catch up in school. The program also holds independent living training which teaches the girls personal hygiene, how to cook, and how to become financially responsible.

Soroptimist International of Anderson, a volunteer organization invested in empowering women and girls through education, found out about TRU Harbor and decided they wanted to take on a new project.

Volunteering at TRU Harbor is organized into tiers in order to keep expectations in check and to protect the residents.

"We really need to make sure we keep our commitment," Soroptimist President Barb Donnell said. "Whatever level we get involved at, we need to be there. We can't just be another thing that stops showing up. We can't break their trust, because that's just what they've always experienced."

Donnell and Soroptimist member Kathy Barrett visited the facility and they were impressed, empowered to help, but saddened for its necessity.

"This just kills me, it's family selling those kids," said Barrett. "I keep calling them women, but these are girls. They're going through very adult things."

TRU Harbor is now waiting to pass final inspections and sign paperwork. They're testing fire alarms, making sure doors are secure, but otherwise, they're ready to open, Mallory said.

The facility is ready. Staff has been hired. The curriculum is in place. There are 16 beds waiting for girls who need a safe place to lay their heads, Mallory said.

"I know that every day we don’t open there are girls sitting in detention facilities, missing treatment," she said. "I'm so ready. I’m ready to open our doors so we can help girls."

Follow Laura Arwood on Twitter @lauraarwood or call 765-648-4284.

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