by CARMEN SIERING
The number of Indiana youth who are sexually exploited has increased significantly in recent years, according to the Indiana University Center for Rural Engagement. In response, the center has funded the Community Engagement to End Child Sexual Exploitation project.
Eli Konwest and Teresa Nichols at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies (SGIS) and Deb Getz, associate clinical professor in applied health science in the School of Public Health, are partnering with Brown, Greene, and Putnam counties on the project.
“The same drivers—things like substance abuse and poverty— are at play in human trafficking and child exploitation,” says Konwest, director of the SGIS Center for the Study of Global Change. Her center’s involvement is based on its extensive work studying human trafficking.
While child exploitation occurs everywhere, the project’s focus on rural communities is deliberate. “We find a lot of it occurring within families or among friends of children, and it’s a lot more hidden in rural communities,” Getz says. “The isolation almost facilitates it.”
The project will create connections among organizations that have contact with survivors of child exploitation.
“One thing we identified was there are people out there doing this kind of work, but they don’t know each other exist,” Konwest says. “There are other people who want to help, but they don’t know how. Once we have identified these organizations and the gaps in treatment, we can use the survey tool to see what is actually out there.”
IU will collaborate with the nonprofit Alliance for Freedom, Restoration, and Justice, using its Engage Together Community Engagement Toolkit and database. The project will create a replicable model that other rural communities can use.
Helping the public understand child exploitation is also part of the project.
“Exploitation doesn’t require physical touching,” Getz says. “It can be the sharing of imagery online. We like to help people understand the issue of child exploitation imagery, and we like to help kids understand what’s out there and help them protect themselves.”
If you suspect a child is being exploited, call the Department of Child Services Indiana Child Abuse Hotline at 800-800-5556.