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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Advocates identify warning signs and educate the community on human trafficking 

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It was 3 a.m. in Gary, Indiana, and Heather Maravilla wanted to go home. Banging on the outside of the strip club’s locked door and demanding the club let her leave was Maravilla’s boyfriend at the time.  

Opening the door was a guard who pointed a rifle at his face. 

“She will be out when she is done making us … money,” the guard said, according to Maravilla, who explained the early morning events. 

The same gun turned on her as she was instructed to go back upstairs to her last customer. This is just one of many horrific experiences Maravilla faced during her 12 years in the human trafficking industry.  

Human trafficking is the second largest and fastest growing criminal enterprise in the world, and Indiana is not immune to its darkness. The illegal enterprise generates more than $150 billion in profits annually around the globe.  

The U.S. Department of Justice’s Office for Victims of Crime has designated Marion County as an economically distressed community with a targeted need to support victims of trafficking. Thirty-nine neighborhoods in Marion County have been identified as needing support.  

According to Danika Hoistion, the Director of Development and Communications at anti-trafficking organization Ascent 121, human trafficking is the recruiting, harboring, and transportation or solicitation of a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act in exchange for something of value. It is induced by force, fraud or coercion.  

Human trafficking is often overlooked due to misinformation that is spread. One of the misconceptions surrounding human trafficking is that it only occurs in lower-income areas. Human trafficking happens everywhere around the world. It occurs even in our own backyard.  

“The important thing to know is that … here in Indianapolis and across the state we are seeing sex trafficking of kids all the time. It is happening day and night, and it is happening here,” Hoistion told the Recorder. 

Hoistion said it is important for people to be aware of the realities of human trafficking because misconceptions can lead to missed signs and overlooked victims.  

People of all ages can be victims of human trafficking. In fact, Hoistion said the typical age range she sees at Ascent 121 is between 14-18. 

“Teenagers are more vulnerable at that age and traffickers will see a need and take advantage of that need,” explained Hoistion.   

Maravilla was 14 years old when she was exposed to human trafficking. At that age, she was raped three times — one of those times was by a couple she was babysitting for.  

“I was raped by the people who I trusted,” Maravilla said. 

Traffickers will appear at the same places children frequent, such as malls, parks, schools, the grocery store and social media, to reel them in and gain their trust to exploit them for their own financial gain.  

One-way traffickers will gain the trust of an individual is by manipulating them. For Maravilla, that rang true.  

During Maravilla’s childhood, she lost trust in her mother, described her stepfather as “emotionally avoidant” and longed to feel safe and secure. 

Although there are no defining characteristics that all victims share, traffickers frequently prey on people with vulnerabilities including poverty and lack of housing, educational opportunities and love.  

The first time Maravilla was told she was good at something was by her trafficker, who kidnapped her for four months when she was 16. During that time, Maravilla was locked in a room where she was physically and sexually abused day after day.  

After escaping, Maravilla went back home, where she was taken to a juvenile detention center for being listed as a runaway. After a few months in the detention center, the 17-year-old went to court with her mother and stepfather. 

“My mom and my stepfather told the judge, ‘Well, we don’t want her back home.’ And that’s when I got turned over to the state for foster care,” Maravilla said.  

Hoistion noted many children who are trafficked have a history with the child welfare system and have experienced neglect, absent or incarcerated parents, or various forms of abuse.  

After leaving the foster care system, Maravilla was homeless. At 18 years old, she began working at a strip club. 

“Any man could come in that club and put his card on the bar and purchase any woman he wants,” Maravilla said. “They wrote our name down … The amount of money depends on how much time you got. So, the more money you paid, the more time you got.” 

Maravilla spent five years at that strip club before she left and entered a 12-year abusive marriage. At age 31, the mother of six moved to Indianapolis, where she began working at strip clubs again. 

“I felt like life had dealt me a bad hand, and these were my cards,” Maravilla said. 

At 40 after she was invited to church Maravilla met her mentor and now close friend, Stephanie Turner, and began to change her life.  

In 2017 Maravilla turned her pain into poetry and published a book titled “Love’s Redeemed Daughter: The Reflections of Nyla.” The book tells the story of the 12 years Maravilla spent in the human trafficking system and her transformation after making it out. 

Maravilla currently works as a Regional 5 Coalition Coordinator for an Indiana Trafficking Victims Assistant Program, the Indiana Youth Services Associations, where they provide human trafficking trainings throughout the community.  

Maravilla said it was “nobody but God” that kept her going despite everything she went through.  

“I’ve known many girls who didn’t make it out. I attended a lot of funerals of girls who have been murdered: girls who been stabbed … I don’t know why he allowed me to make it out. I should’ve died many times,” Maravilla said as tears rolled down her face.  

Maravilla said to stop human trafficking, buyers of victims need to be held more accountable. She encourages those that suspect they know a human trafficking victim to call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1(888) 373-7888.  

Local organizations are also here to help. Some local anti-trafficking organizations across the state include Grit Into Grace, Indiana Youth Services Association, Indiana Protection of Abused and Trafficked Humans Taskforce and Allies. 

Contact staff writer Timoria Cunningham at 317-762-7854 or timoriac@indyrecorder.com. Follow her on Twitter at _timoriac.  

This article has been updated to reflect the accuracy of one human trafficking organization previously listed.

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