This is a repost from Tim Swarens' story.

The pleas to help a wounded child came in one after the other. 

Tim Swarens.jpg

First one 12-year-old girl who'd been purchased for sex in Indiana was identified. Then a second. And a third. And a fourth.

In the past two months, Ascent 121, a Carmel-based nonprofit that provides treatment and other services for child trafficking victims, has been asked to aid four girls entering their first weeks of middle school. 

Dozens of adults had paid to sexually abuse these children. And yet, according to Ascent 121's Chief Operating Officer Megan Jessup, none of the buyers were arrested or prosecuted for raping the girls.

It's an outrage and a breach of justice that I've seen repeatedly as I've examined child trafficking cases across the nation in the past year. Buyers are rarely held accountable.

“If we walked into a hotel room and saw a grown man having sex with a child, that would be rape, that would be assault," said Tracy McDaniel, founder of Restored Inc., another local nonprofit that aids trafficking victims. "But if we walk into the same hotel and there’s $20 on the nightstand, now she’s a child prostitute? That doesn’t make any sense to me." 

McDaniel handled a Hamilton County case last year involving an 11-year-old victim who was advertised on a dating website called Plenty of Fish. "Her mom needed rent money so (the child) met someone at a park and exchanged sex for money," McDaniel said. "It led to her meeting other men online.” 

None of the buyers were prosecuted in that case either.

In Hamilton County, 10 trafficking victims had been identified by Sept. 30; up from nine in all of 2016. Ascent 121 had served 120 young trafficking victims by Sept. 30; it helped 110 girls last year. And Restored Inc. had handled 72 cases in the first nine months of this year; last year, the organization assisted more than 100 victims.

Let's pause to think about this: Young children — 11- and 12-years-old, for goodness sake — are being exploited in some of the worst ways imaginable in our community. And the buyers who abuse these kids are allowed to do so without consequence.

How can that happen?

"Our society tends to normalize buyers' behavior," Jessup said. "There's a tendency to blame the victim."

Anti-trafficking advocates describe it as a "culture of impunity." It involves a cultural stew that includes the lack of political will to aggressively enforce laws that criminalize the purchase of children; the benefit of the doubt given to buyers when they claim they didn't know their victims were underage; and the belief that sex workers are to blame at least in part for their own exploitation.

Prosecutors also argue that asking a child to testify against buyers can further traumatize a victim who's already suffered horribly.  It's better, they say, to offer survivors treatment and to go hard after the pimps and traffickers who profit from exploitation.

And that is true in some cases. But McDaniel said she's worked with survivors who wanted justice and couldn't get it.

“It’s heartbreaking. These are children, and at the end of the day, a child cannot be a prostitute," McDaniel said. "For them it’s daunting. For them, it’s like, ‘Why should I even tell? Why should I listen to you? Why should I trust you because nothing is happening?' The lesson I’ve learned is that our justice system doesn’t always work, and it doesn’t always work in the favor of a child.”

Questions about how to address the demand side of the child sex trade are being raised with increasing urgency. In part, that's because the number of identified victims is on the rise. But more so, because the enormous scale of the demand has become increasingly evident.

A recent example out of Delaware County illustrates the point.

In September, I sat down with two undercover officers whose primary responsibility is to fight against the exploding drug trade that's devastated so many lives in our state. During their investigations, they started seeing a disturbing number of child trafficking victims, and so they went to Sheriff Ray Dudley to ask permission to pursue trafficking cases in their spare time.

In August, one of the officers posted a fake ad on in which he posed as a 15-year-old runaway girl.  He received 98 text messages and calls from potential buyers in the first 12 hours the ad was online.

Eventually, one man — 41-year-old Anthony Ralph Kapp from St. Joe, Ind. — was arrested and charged with attempted sexual misconduct with a minor and child solicitation.

Let's pause again to think about those numbers: One ad; 98 potential buyers; one arrest.

With that level of demand, as McDaniel noted, traffickers have strong financial incentive to recruit, groom, manipulate and coerce young victims. Which means we won't reduce the scale of the child sex trade until we get serious about attacking demand.

“We can recover them all day long," McDaniel said. "But if we don’t have proper services for them and if we don’t go after demand, if people aren’t being prosecuted, then it becomes a gerbil wheel. The trafficker is looking for another child to exploit."