FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) - It's considered modern-day slavery; forcing people to work in labor services or the sex trade against their will through physical force or manipulation and coercion. Human trafficking is happening right now in every corner of the world.
While the term human trafficking encompasses both sex and labor trafficking, Fort Wayne’s cases have mainly been related to prostitution.
“We don't think it's in Indiana. We don't think it's in the United States. People think it's only in underdeveloped Third World countries and that's not true at all,” Corbin Landrum, a senior at Huntington North High School who studied human trafficking for a school project, said. “It's here in Indiana. In Fort Wayne. In Huntington. It's around locally and it's scary.”
"It can happen to anybody. Any race. Any religion. Any gender." - Dr. Robyn Eubank, Psychologist
Last year, the Fort Wayne Police Department worked 15 sex trafficking cases. There were eleven victims in those cases and 23 people were arrested. Some of the cases involved more than one perpetrator violating the same victim. In a joint operation with the FBI, the department also helped rescue three more underage girls from sex trafficking.
“We see it on a regular basis,” Capt. Kevin Hunter with the FWPD Vice and Narcotics unit said. “That is probably just the tip of the iceberg.”
Last year, the Indiana State Report on Human Trafficking said 178 trafficked youth were helped by one statewide service provider alone.
“Our numbers on human trafficking are probably well under what they really are because we don't really know [about every case],” Cathie Bledsoe, the Indiana State Police Youth Educator for the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force said. “It's one of the largest, fastest growing crimes. Investigators say gangs are realizing they can sell a drug once, but they can sell a child three or four times in a day.”
The FBI's Fort Wayne office has been targeting sex trafficking in Fort Wayne for the last few years with a heightened focus last year. Agents carry out undercover stings help girls get out of their situations and take down the traffickers.
"It's here. People just don't notice it." - Fort Wayne Undercover FBI Agent
“I guarantee there's not a hotel in Fort Wayne we haven't been to or have had an operation in. The biggest part was the beginning of last year. Over a month, we started working on four different cases and in three months we had eight girls we were dealing with and they were all underage,” an undercover FBI Special Agent told 15 Finds Out.
A girl can wind up being trafficked in the sex trade in many different ways, but a common way is through social media. The trafficker will groom her by making her feel special and wanted, often buying her dinners and presents.
“Then all of a sudden he'll say, ‘Hey. You've got to do this for me.’ And then when she doesn't, he either beats her or has somebody else beat her and she's so afraid for her life she doesn't really have an option and for some women it's very difficult to get out of that,” Capt. Hunter said.
The traffickers are master manipulators and build up so much trust before they break it that the victims don’t often see that they’re victims.
“They'll find ways of brainwashing and manipulating you. You're the girlfriend, you're more important than those other girls. They’ll use other girls to say it's not a big deal,” the FBI agent said.
One Fort Wayne case investigated by the FBI involved a teenager who ran away from home. She posted on Facebook that she needed a ride. Within six hours of getting picked up, she was prostituting.
“She was prostituted with three people before we got on it,” the agent said. “We acted on it as soon as we saw those pictures. We thought she's underage and we need to get her now. We were the first date in the morning and stopped it quickly.”
One of the biggest misconceptions about sex trafficking is that the women or girls want to be there.
“They don't want it. I've talked to all of them and none of them wanted to do this. But they got stuck,” the FBI agent said.
It’s not hard to find posts advertising girls on the Internet. One of the more popular sites, Backpage, was recently censored by the government.
“It's a good message to bring awareness, which is why a lot of things have been up-ticking. There’s a lot of awareness in human trafficking, so it's nice to bring awareness and maybe it will bring more support,” the agent said.
One of the first steps in stopping human trafficking is education and awareness. And that starts with everyone taking the time to acknowledge and report when something doesn't seem right.
"If you open your eyes and understand what trafficking really looks like, you will never be able to deny it again." - K.D. Roche, Survivor
“If you were to spend time in front of pretty much every hotel, you would see odd things come in, like older men with really young girls. It just seems out of place. People will say that doesn't seem normal, but they cast it off because they're busy with their day so they don't realize what they just saw,” the FBI agent said.
There are things that everyone can look for to help stop sex trafficking, especially with underage girls.
“Simple things. Do they have hotel keys? Do they have an excessive amount of money? Who are they with? Are they hanging around people too old to be a boyfriend and too young to be a parent? How do they behave around them? Are they guarded? If that person is around and you ask what they did that day and they can't answer without asking permission, there's a problem there,” Bledsoe said.
15 Finds Out will continue its series on human trafficking every Thursday in February. There will be a closer look at how tricky social media can be, how parents can keep their kids safe and how law enforcement is working to combat it.
Next Thursday, hear from sex trafficking survivor K.D. Roche. Now a businesswoman, still healing from her trauma, she’ll explain why it’s not as simple as “just leaving and calling the police” and she has a message to anyone trapped in the sex trade right now. Hidden Predators continues Thursday at 6 p.m.
On Tuesday, February 7 the public is invited to a presentation about how mobile apps are changing the way crimes are being committed. The night is presented by the co-founder of RemedyLIVE from 6-7:30 p.m. at the Family and Community Engagement Center located at 230 E. Douglas St.