VALPARAISO — Victims of human trafficking span all ages, U.S. Homeland Security Special Agent Phil Coduti said.
"I've seen victims as young as an infant in one case and as old as a 70-year-old woman from a foreign country who had been hired as a housekeeper," Coduti said.
Coduti, who has worked in the area of child exploitation for 17 years in Northwest Indiana, served as one of four panel members who spoke Friday at a Valparaiso University Law Review Symposium titled, "Modern Day Slavery: An Analysis of Human Trafficking and the Laws Meant to End It."
His fellow panel speakers included Sara Morley LaCroix, founder of the Kalamazoo Anti-Human Trafficking Coalition; Mary Frances Bowley, founder of Wellspring Living in Atlanta, Georgia; and Jill R. Koster, of the U.S. attorney's office in the Northern District of Indiana.
Coduti described those who traffic others for profit as predators who could be anyone, even a practicing lawyer, which Coduti discovered while handling one area case in which the victim pointed out the attorney.
"They (those who traffic) look for someone with vulnerability, such as a runaway, someone with low self-esteem or no family or an addict," Coduti said.
And human trafficking can be a more lucrative endeavor than drug dealing because, unlike drugs, humans can be used for sexual exploitation multiple times.
"If I sell a person I don't have to replace them but can sell them again and again," Coduti said.
Koster, who served as a federal prosecutor for 12 years, said human trafficking cases can be difficult to prove.
Jurors tend to question why the victims didn't run or call police, Koster said.
"And the victims often are inclined to protect their pimp because in some cases they believe they are in love and one day will be married and live in a house with a white picket fence," Koster said.
Victims, even those willing to testify, are often embarrassed to tell their story of abuse.
"Imagine getting up and telling your most embarrassing things you've done in a courtroom then being asked why you didn't leave," Koster said.
LaCroix, founder of the anti-human trafficking coalition, said she had her eyes opened to the topic in 2009 after attending a public affairs meeting.
"I was floored. I thought people chose to be a prostitute," LaCroix said.
It was at that meeting that LaCroix met Leslie King, the founder of Sacred Beginnings, who was a former victim of trafficking starting at age 15.
LaCroix asked King, who also spoke during the event Friday, what she could do to help, and she went on to form the Kalamazoo Anti-Human Trafficking Coalition, an organization that works to raise awareness, to train professionals to recognize and respond to human trafficking and to advocate for services in the area to help victims of human trafficking.
Bowley, a former kindergarten teacher, serves survivors of sex trafficking through various programs that empower and encourage them to move forward in their lives and succeed in whatever path they choose to pursue.
Bowley's Wellspring Living program helps teen victims receive a place to live, new clothing and assistance with schooling. It also helps with getting a job.
"Seventy-six percent of them are getting great jobs," Bowley said.