At age 10, Eric Harris’ mother began grooming him for sex trafficking, leading to abuse by strangers and people known to him.
Looking back as he studies social work at Anderson University, Harris recognized that even he didn’t realize his childhood trauma was emblematic of sex trafficking. But it was. His mother, a drug addict, began bringing strangers to their San Diego house, allowing them to sexually exploit the young boy. They manipulated him by getting him addicted to drugs, then exploited him sexually. That led to more abuse by a man who further groomed him, feigning an interest in his wellbeing.
Eventually he was taken to what he dubbed a trap house and locked in a room where he was used by strangers for his groomer’s personal gain. But unlike the Hollywood tropes most associate with the practice of sex trafficking, one that commonly conjures images of young women being transported internationally to be sold to the highest bidder, Harris’ abuse was familial, and that’s how experts claim most sex trafficking occurs.
“Hollywood hypes it up to be like this big thing, people in chains and all that,” said Harris, now 43. “Granted, don’t get me wrong, when I was in that trap house I was locked up in a room. And the only way I was able to make my escape was when they left the door unlocked. People need to realize trafficking isn’t this Hollywood thing … When I connected with other victims, I realized I was commercially trafficked.”
Just as victims may not realize they’ve been trafficked, experts in treating those who have been say the public is often ignorant of how sexual trafficking commonly occurs. And while high-profile instances such as the Jeffrey Epstein case have turned the public eye toward the issue, most fail to realize it happens here in Howard County. Harris’ case may have occurred in San Diego, but the transplant’s story is similar to cases occurring on the local level, said Jessica Herzog-Hall, the Region 6 coalition coordinator for the Indiana Trafficking Victims Assistance Program.
“They’re immediate family members, boyfriends, or intimate partners … A lot of the time we forget what these traffickers really look like and who they really are, and it gets so much more complicated when it’s an immediate family member and that grooming process begins,” said Herzog-Hall.
According to Herzog-Hall, about 36 percent of trafficking is performed by the parents of the victim.
In Howard County specifically, according to FSA Domestic Violence Shelter Director Lindsey Davison, about five cases have been encountered through her organization’s services. Prior to her coming on three years ago, no such cases were reported. So, to Davison, she believes the practice is on the rise, probably exacerbated by the opioid epidemic.
“I think it’s all intertwined, interconnected,” said Davison. “Yes, one affects the other. Which one comes first, you don’t know. I’ve only been in this position three years, but I know we’ve obviously seen an increase in substance abuse, opioids specifically, seen an increase in sex trafficking, human trafficking, just from when I’ve been here and previously.”
According to those charged with providing services to those who have been trafficked, one of the greatest difficulties in ferreting out such cases, and treating the victims, is creating a better understanding of how the practice actually unfolds.
Primarily, it begins with the grooming of a potential victim. Many cases begin with a victim, most commonly a juvenile, being groomed by a family member for trafficking. The practice is carried out for any myriad of reasons, such as the family member seeking monetary compensation, drugs, or other forms of payment.
According to Herzog-Hall, the rise of social media has given traffickers access to more juvenile victims as well. According to her, a common practice involved individuals procuring compromising photographs of juveniles then threatening the release of the photographs as a form of blackmail. In sex trafficking cases over the internet, victims are coerced into sharing sexual imagery or performing sexual acts under the threat of blackmail.
K.D. Roche, a sex trafficking victim, human trafficking field expert, and author of “Fragments: A Post-Traumatic Paradigm,” concurred with Herzog’s assessment of online sex trafficking.
“I think people have an idea of what human trafficking looks like,” said Roche. “It’s not as common as you see people on the street. The internet has made it really easy for people to have that access at their fingertips, especially pedophiles, people looking for children.”
Just as perceptions of sex trafficking make it difficult to identify cases for the public, locally, moves have been made to better prepare officers and prosecutors to deal with such cases.
Recently, local stakeholders have worked to improve the community’s Sexual Assault Response Team, which involves providing better training and understanding to those tasked with working sexual assault cases. According to Heidi Wright, an FSA domestic violence sexual assault victim’s advocate, language is being worked into the local SART’s agreement and protocols to deal with instances of sex trafficking.
“There’s a lot of bias,” said Wright. “There’s a lot of misinformation, so part of the objective of the SART is to educate first responders at all levels so they know what to look for as opposed to what we’ve been taught by the media that it looks like.”
Providing a better understanding, said Davison, can help officials better identify cases of sex trafficking.
A local case comes to mind from last year for Davison, where officers first thought a juvenile, who identified as gay, simply was troubled due to him running away from home and acting out.
But, according to Davison, it eventually was revealed that the juvenile had been groomed for sex trafficking by adults, given gifts, and was emotionally manipulated. Such manipulation, warned Davison, can be particularly easy when traffickers target troubled juveniles, especially those who may not be accepted at home due to their sexual orientation.
“I think the one scenario that I’m referring to in my mind, everybody was quick to label an individual as bad or a typical difficult kid to deal with, and it wasn’t,” said Davison. “[This juvenile] was absolutely a victim of human trafficking, and that answers a lot of the ‘whys’ that you’re frustrated with if you’re trying to get help with this individual. Understanding that there is a much greater issue here, a much bigger why, then you can understand that you can help the victim much more.”
To report cases of sex trafficking, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888.