Indiana State students help educate motel managers about forced prostitution rings during Super Bowl weekend.
What to look for and what to say remained fresh on Jessica Flynn’s mind.
The Indiana State University graduate student and her partners drove around a motel located at the confluence of three highways in New Jersey. Flynn described it as “sleazy, a hotel you’d never want to take your children to.” By an exit door, they spied a Mercedes Benz, one of the red flags — an expensive car at a low-price motel parked near an exit.
Flynn, a clinical mental health counseling student from Terre Haute, along with 11 other Indiana State students and Catherine Tucker, associate professor of counseling, traveled to New Jersey for the weekend of Jan. 25-26 to work with the New Jersey Coalition Against Human Trafficking, Be Free Dayton and SOAP (Save Our Adolescents from Prostitution) prior to the Super Bowl.
Sex trafficking occurs whenever a person, often young and vulnerable, is forced into the commercial sex trade. According to the U.S. State Department, child and human trafficking is the second largest criminal enterprise in the world, after the illegal drug trade. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reported as many as 2.8 million children run away each year in the U.S.; within 48 hours, one-third of those are lured or forced into prostitution or pornography.
Once inside the hotel, the manager defensively questioned Flynn and her teammates. They explained to him about the uptick of trafficking that would occur Super Bowl weekend, showed him a flyer with pictures of missing children, told him about the signs of trafficking. At the end of their conversation, the manager accepted a bag of soaps — each bar wrapped with a red band, providing a hotline number and, perhaps, a glimmer of light to those caught in the dark web of sex trafficking.
Flynn said she hopes the manager places a bar in each bathroom. And maybe, just maybe, someone would call 1-888-373-7888 and find freedom.
“It was an opportunity to save lives that day,” she said. “I did my part. That one day, I could help an individual.”
Tucker organized the opportunity for her students to affect human trafficking in the United States after meeting Theresa Flores, the founder of SOAP, at a conference.
“They’re able to do something about it, rather than just hear about it,” Tucker said. “And, obviously, we know that doing is the best way to learn something.”
When Ritika Latke, a graduate student from Mumbai, India, learned Tucker planned to take a group to New Jersey to work against trafficking, she knew she had to go, too.
“I wanted to go and see what kind of experience this was and see if we could save one girl,” she said.
That weekend, students and volunteers first listened to Flores tell her story of surviving being trafficked for sex and, later, founding SOAP.
“It reminded me if it was happening in a country like the U.S., which has every advancement, if it is happening so openly in the U.S., what is happening in my country, in India?” Latke said.
The students and other volunteers received training on what to say to motel managers about red flags that indicate trafficking may be occurring and bags of soaps packaged with the National Human Trafficking Hotline printed on each bar.
Then, teams of three or four volunteers went out.
“I was extremely nervous going into the first hotel,” said Alyssia Hammond from Eminence, Ind. “I was afraid I was going to mess this up, and they weren’t going to put out the soap bars.”
But when the manager listened to the facts and warning signs, Hammond said she found herself breathing easier. Then the manager willingly took the bag of soaps to distribute.
“I think it’s really important, because most people are unaware it is happening,” Hammond said. “If people don’t notice, then human trafficking will still happen to a lot of our teens.”
Tucker said one hotel manager recognized two girls from a flyer the students distributed and reported the sighting. After the Super Bowl, law enforcement personnel reported rescuing 16 teenagers, ages 13 to 17 and mostly female, according to news reports. Officers also arrested 45 pimps and their associates.
“It was an opportunity to save lives that day,” Flynn said of her volunteer work in New Jersey. “I did my part. That one day, I could help save an individual.”
The students plan to bring the lessons they learned in New Jersey to Indiana and India.
“I’m getting the world’s best education,” Latke said about the lessons she learned in and out of the classroom in New Jersey. She plans to use those lessons in India.
Hammond wants to work in the Wabash Valley informing managers of motels and bars of warning signs.
“When people hear about human trafficking, they don’t think it happens in the United States,” she said. “But there’s been cases in every state. If we don’t do something, it’s going to keep happening.”
Tucker said the students also have begun organizing with SOAP to prevent trafficking during the upcoming Indianapolis 500.
“I want to do my part as a human to help another human being help themselves,” Flynn said.
While labor trafficking happens mostly in the states bordering Mexico, Tucker said domestic sex trafficking tends to be what happens the most in the Midwest.
Most of the minors arrested for prostitution are sex trafficked; they’re forced or coerced into it, even if they haven’t left the town where they lived, she said.
Warning signs people should observe are:
- Young teenagers in financial distress who start wearing expensive clothes and talking about older boyfriends.
- Students who attended class regularly but begin to skip or sleep through class
- Superficial injuries such as a black eye
- Tattoos of the “boyfriend’s” name
At motels, people should be aware of:
- Expensive cars at cheap, low-market hotels
- Rooms with a lot of people coming and going
- Young girls with a lot of cash and multiple hotel keys
For more information on human trafficking and its signs, visit http://www.polarisproject.org/human-trafficking/recognizing-the-signs.
To report suspected trafficking, contact the Polaris Project at 1-888-373-7888 or text “info” or “help” to BeFree (233733).
Jennifer Sicking GR ’11 is working and living in Fort Smith, Ark.