Guest opinion: Minors are trafficked for sex in Indiana; statistics only tell part of the story

Posted by: Greg Zoeller | Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Editor's note: Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller submitted this opinion in response to Post-Tribune columnist David Rutter's column "Bad data can stop the best of causes" which ran June 19.

The Washington Post recently ran an opinion column disputing a statistic printed on a billboard my office displayed during the month of May to raise awareness of the criminal sex trafficking industry. The billboard read "13 is the average age kids are first used in the sex trade."

The statistic was used as part of our Indiana's Not Buying It public awareness effort, which aims to alert the public that children are used in commercial sex and urge people – particularly men – never to tolerate the purchase of another human being.

I thank the opinion columnist for his efforts to question and substantiate statistics used to portray human trafficking. There is no question that we want to be as accurate as possible when talking about the horrific crimes that impact youth in Indiana.

Unfortunately, the victimization of children is real, tragic and increasing – whether it be through trafficking, child pornography, child labor or other formerly unspeakable ways in which minors are abused or exploited.

The opinion columnist notes that there has been little independently verifiable research to support the claim that 13 is in fact the average entry age into the sex trade. Instead, he notes it appears more likely to be between 15 and 16 years old. While this window may be more accurate until more precise studies are available, it reminds us that these victims still are minors who are below the age of consent, and it underscores the fact that children and teens are targeted and victimized by the sex trafficking industry.

During the nearly eight years that I have focused on raising awareness of and combating human trafficking, I have seen abundant indications that this crime is happening here, and that traffickers target vulnerable youth – victims who have been abused as children, run away from home or lack a strong family support system, among many indicators of vulnerability.

The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children estimates that one in five runaways reported to their organization in 2015 were likely victims of sex trafficking. In 2015, 53 cases of human trafficking in Indiana were reported to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center Hotline run by nonprofit Polaris, and of those cases, 13 involved victims who were minors.

Such statistics are important, but they are only part of the story. Statistics can't portray the reality trafficking victims face – young girls coerced into prostitution through violence and manipulation, cut off from their family and friends, forced into back rooms with strangers, driven to abuse drugs or alcohol, only to be labeled as criminals on their 18th birthdays.

Traffickers target and prey on minors, and no matter their age, this is a serious and horrific crime that demands our attention and resources. It stands to reason that traffickers would like nothing better than for the public to be dismissive and assume wrongly that human trafficking is not a problem, but indeed it is a problem, often described as a modern version of slavery.

Law enforcement, government agencies, nonprofits and other leaders have done incredible work to identify this crime, prosecute traffickers, support victims and inform the public about the reality of this criminal enterprise.

I remain committed to educating the public and others about this issue and combating people's misassumptions that trafficking could not exist here. Part of that involves reducing the demand for commercial sex, and we do that especially by speaking to men about how paying for sex fuels human trafficking. We have also worked with our government and nonprofit colleagues to improve services for child victims.

Through diligence, compassion and pursuing accurate information, we remain dedicated to fighting human trafficking in Indiana.

Greg Zoeller is Indiana attorney general.