January is National Human Trafficking Awareness Month

Kimberly Dowling, Judge of Delaware Circuit Court 2.Kimberly Dowling, Judge of Delaware Circuit Court 2.

By Kimberly S. Dowling, Judge of  Delaware Circuit Court 2—

MUNCIE, IN—January is National Human Trafficking Awareness Month.  The occasion prompted me to reflect on the advances Indiana has made over the last eight years in addressing the scourge of trafficking.  I would like to share those accomplishments with our community.

My work on this issue began in 2014, just after I was first elected to the bench. Trafficking was already a hot topic for policy makers, but I learned quickly that we had a lot of work to do in Indiana. Approximately 300,000 children in the U.S. are dragged into human trafficking each year–many between the ages of 12 and 14.  Roughly 80% of these children have been involved in the child welfare system.  Half of them have been in foster care. They come from all walks of life. Children are trafficked by their own families, as part of gang involvement, and by other perpetrators.

Some hope in finding and helping victims is the fact that about 90% of trafficked children have seen a medical professional while they were being trafficked.  This startling fact has helped focus training in Indiana.

Several years ago, the Indiana Supreme Court appointed a committee to address trafficking of Indiana youth as part of the Indiana Commission on Improving the Status of Children.  I chair that committee, and we have helped to address trafficking in several ways.

First, the committee has assisted the legislature by proposing new laws to address human trafficking.  These laws have expanded the definition of trafficking to address adult and juvenile sex and labor trafficking.  They have added trafficking to the felony murder statute, making deaths caused as a result of trafficking murder. The crime of maintaining a common nuisance now includes trafficking.  Indiana also adopted legislation permitting trafficking victims to vacate non-violent convictions if they were being trafficked at the time of the conviction.

Second, the committee has provided extensive training about identifying trafficking across the state to those involved in the juvenile justice system, law enforcement, educators and medical professionals.  Trainings in Muncie, alone, have included IU/Ball Memorial Staff, Open Door Staff, SANE nurses, educators, the Department of Child Services, probation officers, law enforcement, and members of the general public.

Third, the committee has developed quick indicator “tools” for use by educators, probation officers, detention staff and medical professionals.  Those tools list red flags for trafficking victims and instructions on actions needed to recover those victims.  Current efforts include scheduled trainings with medical schools in Ft. Wayne and Muncie.

Sadly, the purchasing is what drives this heinous phenomenon.  The demand to purchase sex, especially with juveniles, leads perpetrators to lure our children into trafficking.  In 2022 our legislature increased the penalty for purchasing sex, with adults and juveniles, to a level 4 felony, allowing sentences of 2-12 years with an advisory sentence of 6 years.  While that helps, much work needs to be done.

Indiana still faces many challenges.  The state has no budget line item to address trafficking. Most child victims suffer from something akin to “Stockholm syndrome,” so that even when they are identified as victims, their trauma binds them to their victimizers, creating tall hurdles for law enforcement in investigating these crimes.  Most ads to sell our children are placed on the internet. We do not have the resources to even track those ads.  Despite these challenges, the committee continues to fight for Hoosier children.  Our children deserve it.