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April 2, 2017

Human trafficking in Indiana: ‘It’s happening here in our own back yard’

Father Dan Gartland, pastor of Holy Spirit Parish in Fishers, and Megan McGuire, CEO of Ascent 121. (Photo by Brigid Curtis Ayer)

Father Dan Gartland, pastor of Holy Spirit Parish in Fishers, and Megan McGuire, CEO of Ascent 121. (Photo by Brigid Curtis Ayer)

By Brigid Curtis Ayer (For The Catholic Moment)

FISHERS — Human trafficking of girls as young as 12 years old happens every day right here in Indiana.

Megan McGuire, an advocate who works with female survivors of sex trafficking who are ages 12 to 17, highlighted the horrifying reality of sex trafficking in Indiana, saying “it’s happening here in our own back yard.”

Her March 23 presentation at Holy Spirit Parish in Fishers was at the invitation of Father Dan Gartland, pastor. He became aware of the depth of the problem through his service as a member of the Fishers task force on mental health.

McGuire, who spent most of her life working in the corporate world, said she felt called to lead the emerging non-profit organization Ascent 121 after serving on its board.

As a board member, McGuire recommended that the group develop a long-term business sustainability plan.

Then, McGuire said, she felt God was tapping her on the shoulder and saying, “How about you?”

So she left her job in the corporate world to advocate full-time for survivors of sex trafficking.

Ascent 121 provides a human trafficking trauma recovery program for girls ages 12 to 17.

Its name, McGuire said, was inspired by Psalm 121: “I lift up my eyes to the mountains — where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.”

Girls entering Ascent 121 receive an intensive care recovery program which lasts from six to 12 months, and includes individual and family therapy as well as opportunities to participate in a weekly Christian discipleship program.

“We see God at work, and many girls in our program say God saved them from dying.” McGuire said, “Sex trafficking is horrific. These girls have had sex with dozens, 100’s or in some cases 1,000’s of men. There are a lot of men, drugs and violence that the girls have endured.”

Last year, 2016, McGuire said Ascent 121 has helped 110 human trafficked girl survivors, ages 12-17 recover from the trauma they have experienced. All but four girls were Indiana residents. While boys are also trafficked for sex, at a reported rate of one boy for every six girls, McGuire says Ascent 121 works with girls only ages 12-17. Ascent 121 currently partners with Lutheran Child and Family Services to serve girls who are 18 years and older.

Many wonder why human trafficking occurs in Indiana. McGuire says it’s a combination of factors working together. Supply and demand is one of them she says. “Given the over-sexualized culture that we live in that objectifies women, it creates a high demand for sex,” said McGuire.

Human trafficking is second largest and fastest growing criminal activity in the world say McGuire. “It’s very profitable, there is a huge demand, and you can sell the supply over and over and over,” McGuire says. “Guns, drugs and trafficking are the top three criminal industries, but unlike guns or drugs, the girls being sex-trafficked can be used over and over again, so the supply doesn’t get sold once, but multiple times and potentially for years.”

Nationally, one would think human trafficking only happens on the coasts, but when McGuire displays a map of where human trafficking occurs, it indicates Indiana’s high rate. McGuire said a distinction can be made between domestic human trafficking and foreign human trafficking. Girls in foreign human trafficking are more likely to be kidnapped, or sold into it by family members who are poor and need money to survive. In domestic trafficking, girls are either runaways, or being used and trafficked by older “boyfriends” who befriend the girls, lure and trap them in sex trafficking.

McGuire says Indianapolis draws large numbers of business men for sporting events including Colts and Pacers games, the Indianapolis 500, and convention business. Many of these men also want sex during the weekend in addition to attending a convention or sporting event. A supply of readily available young girls being advertised for sale on a Website called www.backpage.com in its “dating” section, and others like it, create a market ripe for business. McGuire said, “These are men who you work with, go to church with, and who live in your neighborhoods that you would never suspect are doing this.” McGuire said it’s not just happening in Indianapolis either, but everywhere in Indiana. It’s not just an urban problem, but it happens all over— in rural, suburban, and urban parts of Indiana.

The other major component contributing to the human trafficking problem is what McGuire calls the “exploitation of vulnerability.” Many of the girls they see at Ascent 121 are not getting the love they need at home, or they come from families where there is a cycle of abuse. Girls who run away from home are prime targets. “The girl runs away at 3pm, and lasts only about two hours on her own, before she is picked up by an older man offering love, giving her a place to stay, and a hot meal. Within hours that girl is being advertised online for sale, and going to work that night,” said McGuire. “It happens that fast.”

The problem is not only affecting runaways. McGuire says girls at these ages are vulnerable even in the normal middle class home. McGuire says another scenario where the teen girl has a much older boyfriend who is in their 20’s or older is a warning sign for trafficking. The boyfriend lures the girl into a “love relationship” and then gets naked photos or videos of the girl, and tells the girl he will show her parents the photos. The ‘boyfriend’ uses the photos to blackmail the girl into sex-trafficking. McGuire said some girls are connecting with older men on social media sites right from their own bedrooms when their parents are home.

McGuire offered a few tips on how to prevent human trafficking and what to do if one suspects someone is being trafficked. “Parents need to be engaged with their children and pay attention to their social media,” says McGuire. “Children should only be communicating with people online that they actually know.” McGuire says, “If you see something, say something.” Local law enforcement and the national trafficking hotline are available to receive reports about human trafficking day or night.

Gabrielle Boulet, a sophomore at Hamilton Southeastern High School in Fishers said she knew about some aspects of the problem, but described the presentation as “eye-opening.” Tina Gillmore, a junior at Hamilton Southeastern High School, said she was “surprised” by how much is occurring in Indiana, but says it makes sense given all that is going on in today’s culture. Anna Jirgal, a senior who is home-schooled, but also attends Marian University said she was reassured that they have groups like Ascent 121 to help these girls recover from their traumatic events they endured. Leah Beach, a freshman at Hamilton Southeastern High School, said she knew it was going on because her parents told her about it. Boulet, Gillmore, Jirgal, and Beach are parishioners at St. John Vianney parish in Fishers, and belong to the Lisieux Sorority, a Catholic girls club for high school age girls which focuses on prayer, community, and growing to be a Christ-centered young woman.
 

For more information on Ascent 121, to become a prayer partner, or to learn how to support the group’s mission, go to the Ascent 121 Webpage at www.ascent121.org . The group also offers an ongoing, monthly program to the community called a Prayer Journey where people gather, drive to and pray at the areas around Indianapolis affected by human trafficking and exploitation.

To report human trafficking or if you think you have come into contact with a victim of human trafficking contact the National Human Trafficking Recourse Center at 1-888-3737-888.

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