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SHAUNESTTE TERRELL

What These Girls Want is Love

“I haven’t yet met one prostitute that didn’t start out as a victim of sexual abuse”

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Prostitutes Start Out as Victims

Sometimes people are under the impression that prostitution is different from sex trafficking of a minor. But I have not met one prostitute who didn’t start out as a victim of sexual abuse in some way. And, if they are older, they have just been in the system longer. They are probably more damaged, more addicted. If we confront them and they will talk to us, and give us information, we either don’t charge them or will dismiss their cases. We have to try.

It’s very rare that we have a victim immediately say “yes” to prosecution. They come from dire circumstances. They are missing something at home or they wouldn’t be so easy to exploit; no money, no dad, mom is working three jobs and is an addict, lack of supervision at home. The trafficker knows that what these girls want more than anything else in the world is love, stability, loyalty…and he coerces them into believing that he will give it to them, that he will fill the voids in their life. There was a saying I heard once that went something like, “Once you own the mind, you own the body.” This is what victimizers do. They know their victims’ vulnerabilities, they get into their victims’ minds, and they eventually control their bodies. They sell them love, sell them dreams, then they are like putty in their hands. They give them a sense of family. It doesn’t start out where it ends up.

When we rescue a victim, she is typically not cooperative at first. In the beginning, we create as much distance between the victim and the trafficker as we can. We allow them to take their time, to take time away from the situation so they can start processing what has happened to them. As time passes, they begin to realize that what they have been subjected to is wrong…what was done to them was wrong. Yet some have been through so many struggles, even outside of trafficking, they are very hardened and don’t know or can’t comprehend that they have been victimized. Their sense of self-worth doesn’t exist. This is why it is crucial to have the cooperation between local police, the U.S. Attorney, the FBI and service organizations, which solely work with sex trafficking. It is important for us to partner with facilities for at-risk youth, like a group home, where everyone understands these girls are victims, not criminals. We do not arrest them, they are not charged. Our goal is to try to help them.

People Need to Be More Aware

In my opinion the biggest problem we face in this country is lack of awareness. People don’t believe that sex trafficking takes place here: in our neighborhoods, in our communities, in our cities, in our schools, in our families, in our lives. Kids are recruited through social media, they are recruited walking down the street, at bus stops, in malls, even at the playground. I have to craft my plea negotiations to look different depending on what court my case lands in. Each court has a different amount of understanding of the situation and I craft my plea agreements accordingly.

The legislation in Indiana is getting better. In fact, it’s pretty good. If a person gets charged with promotion of human trafficking of a minor in Indiana, this means under the age of 18, whether there is consent or not, most can get anywhere from 3-16 years. But the same crime in the federal system is 30 years to life. That’s why, of course, we try to get the feds involved as much as we can. I love when cases are filed federally.

Cases are also difficult to investigate and try in front of a jury due to lack of awareness. Many times the jurors are not sympathetic to the victim because the victim doesn’t fit into a nice little box. Many victims don’t have a clean background. Or they are not a part of the community, but rather are transient. Sometimes they have been involved in sexual abuse their whole lives; they have tattoos, facial piercings, they look like “losers.” And, we only get approximately 20 minutes to educate the jurors during the selection process before we start the case. Asking jurors what they know about sex trafficking in 20 minutes doesn’t allow much understanding of this topic. In the questioning, the place I have to start is asking, “What do you think of when you hear the term ‘Human Trafficking’?” 

The way the law reads in Indiana, sex trafficking is Human Trafficking. It’s a bit of a misnomer. When you say this to a jury, many think of a girl from overseas locked in a truck against her will. And that is the way it needs to be presented in the courts. But most of my cases are sex trafficked teenage girls from our own back yard who are vulnerable in many different ways and from many different situations.

The media is so important for spreading awareness. Organizations creating awareness at a grass-roots level is important. Educating our children in our schools is important. It’s all a part of protecting our kids and prosecuting the bad guys. Yet we struggle with the lack of understanding and lack of awareness in the general population. And the problem is increasing. My case load keeps growing. I have three more traffickers to charge within the next week.

Finding the Victims

We find the girls through several ways, but mostly through Backstage.com, a website that the pimps use to market the girls. For the trafficked, under-age girls, they use words like:  young, new, fresh. If they state, “no black guys,” that can be a signal they have a pimp. We look for these buzz words, look for girls who look young, set up equipment in hotels, and do as they do with adults. Then an overnight sting is set up. One of our team sets an appointment and will follow the trail. Sometimes the pimps are found parked nearby. Sometimes he signs her into a hotel and is on the registry. Once we get the agreement, that is the act. The crime of prostitution is in the agreement, not the actual act. An arrest can take place right away or sometimes it takes months.

Other resources for finding victims include 800 numbers, but honestly, since I’ve been in my position, we have not had one call on our 800 cell line. We do get referrals from Child Protective Services and we get a lot of mothers who know their daughter is at a hotel and the name of a boyfriend who took her there. We also get referrals when a social worker suspects a child is being trafficked.

I met a girl last December who was 20, on a night we picked up street walkers. They all were so messed up. They were all addicted to drugs. One girl said she had a pimp, but her mother took the pimp away from her, saying, “I’m a better hooker than you.” I hope we can stop a 13- or 14-year-old from becoming that girl I met.

Shaunestte TerrellDeputy Prosecutor Human Trafficking Division

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