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Local non-profit shares stories of human trafficking and ways residents can help prevent abuse

 011422SHARE human trafficking

Fort Wayne-based civilian educator Kathy Bledsoe, of the Indiana State Police Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, holds up her smartphone as she speaks about how predators make use of technology to ensnare children and teens in abuse and exploitation., at the SHARE Group winter dinner and fundraiser at the Knights of Columbus Hall in Griffith on Jan. 7. SHARE is a Crown Point-based non-profit that promotes resources to fight human trafficking, or the forced labor or sexual exploitation of a person. (Anthony D. Alonzo photo)

 

BY ANTHONY D. ALONZO

Northwest Indiana Catholic

 

      GRIFFITH – Human rights advocates communicated stories and statistics about human trafficking in the U.S. that shocked and saddened some SHARE (Sharing Hope Around the Region Thru Education) Group members and guests at the Crown Point-based non-profit’s winter dinner on Jan. 7.

      One-hundred and twenty-five guests attended the “Human Trafficking and Immigration” seminar, which included a meal and fundraiser hosted at the Knights of Columbus Hall. Among those present at the meeting were State Representative Julie Olthoff, Jose Diaz, a representative of U.S. Senator Todd Young, Tony Ferraro, a representative of U.S. Senator Mike Braun, as well as retired Army Lieutenant Colonel Antonio Daggett, a local senatorial primary candidate and minister.

      Emcee and SHARE member Jim Rainbolt of Crown Point told those gathered during what is recognized as Human Trafficking Awareness Month that, “These stories are going to alarm you but hopefully elicit a response from you to help bring an awareness to this situation and ultimately bring an end to this.”

      Providing context to the issue of human trafficking – commonly understood as the trade of people for purposes of forced labor or sexual abuse or prostitution – Rainbolt said East Coast states such as California and New York and those along the Southern border lead the nation in such trafficking. However, nearby Chicago ranks No. 5 among U.S. cities.

      Chicago-based human rights activist Andrew Holmes gave testimony about how mainly women, boys and girls are stalked, captured, drugged, abused, and often sold into sexual servitude.

      Holmes, working with the Chicago Police Department, as well as federal law enforcement agencies, has participated in rescue operations.

      “(The traffickers) tear down victims’ hope,” Holmes explained. “They don’t know love – all they see is what they’re forced to do. It’s worse than slavery.”

      Kathy Bledsoe, of the Indiana State Police Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, reported an increase in pornographic images of minors that are circulating around the Internet since the start of the pandemic.

      The civilian educator for the state police held aloft her smartphone, speaking not only about its powerful computing capabilities relative to previous generations of computers, but also the “$1.99 apps” that can allow anyone to track other people.

      “What have we done?” Bledsoe asked. “We’ve connected our children with all man’s knowledge up to this second, which is great. We have given them a tool that will give them the opportunity to create their future. That’s awesome. We did not teach them (rules), or give them instructions.”

      She said parents and guardians should communicate openly with their children. Predators try to take advantage of a youth’s emotional vulnerability and “groom” them, lavishing them with gifts that the child or teen receives in the mail.

      Sharmila Wijeyakumar, who herself became ensnared in labor and sex trafficking, spoke about the bait-and-switch approach utilized by those associated with the $32 billion human trafficking industry.

      “Trafficking is alive and well,” said Wijeyakumar, who founded Rahab’s Daughters, a rescue organization. “By putting employment ads on social media and gaming sites, they reach all the places your kids and mine would look ... test to see if these ads are legitimate.”

      SHARE Group President Len Reynolds spoke of a concrete opportunity to help assist human trafficking victims. He announced plans to open a safe house in an undisclosed Northwest Indiana location. The donor-supported effort is dubbed, “House of Hope.”

      “We hope to have the house open as soon as possible,” Reynolds said. “Each day is an opportunity to shelter someone from human trafficking.”

      Father Michael Maginot, administrator of St. Stephen, Martyr, of Merrillville, delivered a prayer at the SHARE dinner. Fellow diocesan priest Father Theodore Mens, administrator of St. Joseph of Hammond, said preventing exploitation of people is an important pro-life issue.

      “The whole country has to change,” said Father Mens. “We have to have a respect for the things of God, we have to respect the dignity of every person made in the likeness of God.”

      The Reverend Thomas Vogel, SHARE vice-president, spoke about the plight of the surge of unaccompanied minors and how lawlessness at the U.S.–Mexico border has resulted in thousands of boys and girls ending up as victims of labor and sexual abuse.

      He said there are “some serious problems,” and often the best-case scenario for a child or teen is to end up in the U.S. foster care system until they are 18.

      Deborah Leslie of Griffith, a SHARE board member, joined the group this summer.

      “I saw Len (Reynolds) at the (Griffith) Rock ‘N’ Rail Fest,” Leslie explained. “SHARE had a booth that was selling coffee. I was very interested in the group because, honestly, I have a sort of history with this sort of stuff.”

      Leslie said legitimate looking employment ads eventually led to her making many “compromises.” The introduction of narcotics robbed her of her real job and connections. “I felt trapped; I attribute it to the devil himself.

      She concluded, “God chased me down, with signs and all kinds of things.”

      To report suspected human trafficking or refer a victim for assistance, call the National Human Trafficking Resource center at 1-888-373-7888, or visit This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. . For more information about or to support SHARE, call 219-525-4335.

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