Hoosiers work to stop human trafficking

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind.-- Right now there are Hoosier teens who are sexually exploited and trafficked in communities across Indiana, but people are working to stop it.

January is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, and experts say education and awareness about trafficking is key to helping prevent it. One survivor is working to do that by sharing her story.

"I was at a place where I had a $300 a day cocaine habit and I was being trafficked daily," Heather Maravilla Sewell said.

That's the place where Heather Maravilla Sewell found herself years ago, a spot she said she knew she'd die in if she didn't escape.

"One time I wanted to leave at 3 o'clock and door man held a rifle to my head and said 'you are not done making this money there's still people here ready to purchase you'," she said.

The now 47-year old said it started when she was homeless, coming out of the foster system at age 18. She said she answered an ad for a waitress, but discovered the restaurant was a strip club in Gary, IN.

"Even though we were being  exploited and trafficked within the clubs you were taught and brainwashed that that's not what it was," Sewell said.

She said after rape, drugs and moving club to club, she married out, but into an abusive relationship. After having her sixth child, Sewell said she ran to Indianapolis where she fell back into the industry and was exploited again.

"Upon turning 40 I kind of looked at my life one night in the club and said I want out," she said. "The jump was really difficult, didn't happen overnight."

Her story is not an isolated one. The National Human Trafficking Hotline reports it received more than 160 calls in 2017 through the end of June referencing Indiana.

Just last weekend, Lafayette Police said a prostitution complaint led them to a hotel where they saw a 27-year old man leaving with two women. Police stopped his car and arrested him. He had two 18-year old's in the vehicle, including one police said  was a victim of sex trafficking. The man is now facing preliminary charges of human trafficking, promoting prostitution and providing alcohol to minors. The teen was returned to her family.

"It's real and it's happening in our community and we can't be afraid to talk about it," Teresa Bradley, a clinical therapist with the group Ascent 121, said.

The organization works to help teen survivors in Central Indiana. Bradley said they help more than 100 exploited teens, both girls and boys, annually.

"It's not chains, it's not bondage, it doesn't even happen outside of the country," she said. "So parents need to be well informed, schools need to be informed, our churches need to be informed and so do teenagers, young girls."

Sewell now works with Ascent 121 to help other survivors, by sharing her story and a little hope.

"What I tell them is that where you are is not who you are, and you were made for more, there's always more. What happened to you does not define who you are, what you do with what happened to you defines who you are and to find beauty through the ashes is possible," she said.

For more information on human trafficking click here.

If you believe you are the victim or trafficking or have information about a possible trafficking situation  you can call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC) at 1-888-373-7888