The state of Indiana entrusted Ciera Beauchamp with a crucial, sensitive job: to serve as legal guardian of an already wounded child. Instead, Beauchamp exploited the girl, helping to sell her to a string of men for sex.
What penalty would you give such a person? Is simply confining her at home for two years an appropriate punishment for such a horrific crime? Is justice served by granting such a light sentence?
Of course not. Yet, that is precisely what awaits Beauchamp, who recently reached a plea deal with the Marion County prosecutor’s office.
In November, Beauchamp — along with her sister, Brandi, and her girlfriend, Ashley Breedlove — was charged with human trafficking after the 17-year-old girl in her care told Department of Child Service caseworkers that the older women had forced her to have sex with men for money.
But the trafficking charge was dropped this past week after Ciera Beauchamp struck a deal to plead guilty to a much-lesser crime: promoting prostitution. The agreement calls for a six-year sentence, with four suspended and two on house arrest.
Brandi Beauchamp will serve two years on probation after pleading guilty to promoting prostitution. Breedlove, who plead guilty to assisting a criminal, will spend only a year on probation.
While their victim works to heal from the deep hurt of being forced to have sex with strangers — the girl told police she was used to pay her guardian’s household bills — the women who exploited her will enjoy the freedom of sleeping in their own beds, eating in their own kitchens, watching movies on their own sofas.
If you have the sudden urge to break something, I understand. I felt the same way when I first learned about this outrage.
But then I contacted therapists and other sources who work closely with child trafficking victims, and the story, like so many connected to this issue, became more complicated.
Prosecutors face a problem in these cases: The victims, whose testimony is crucial to proving a trafficker’s guilt in court, often don’t make strong witnesses.
The victims are young and, in many cases, physically and emotionally battered. It’s not surprising that their memory of the details of what happened to them might change over time. But defense attorneys pounce on those inconsistencies.
The victims often are reluctant witnesses. The shame, guilt and fear they feel can be overwhelming. And having to talk about what happened to them in front of strangers, and being interrogated by a defense attorney, can be traumatic in itself.
It’s also common for victims not to see themselves as victims. Saying that you were in control, claiming that you wanted to be where you were and to do what you did, is one way to cope with the pain. And because traffickers are extreme manipulators, victims often are coerced into bonding with their exploiters; many come to believe that “he is the only person who really loves me, despite what he does to me.”
If this sounds dangerously close to victim blaming — if only the victims were better witnesses, then justice could be served — it is. But that doesn’t change the fact that our criminal justice system is based on the core principle that the accuser and the accused must have equal footing in court.
All of which means that these cases, as with the Beauchamp case, can be hard to prosecute.
Still, the plea deal struck this past week is infuriating because it cuts against much of the progress we’ve made against child trafficking in Indiana in recent years.
The General Assembly has toughened criminal penalties for traffickers. But that is meaningful only if prosecutors consistently pursue trafficking charges, not settle for weak plea deals.
In addition to the absurdly light sentences, the Beauchamp sisters were allowed to plead guilty to promoting prostitution. The phrase “child prostitution” is one strongly rejected not only by anti-trafficking advocates, but also by many police officers, prosecutors and other officials. They understand that a child sold for sex is an abuse victim, not a prostitute. In Washington state, for example, buyers and traffickers who exploit children are charged with the commercial sexual abuse of a minor.
Even in Indiana, a person under the age of 18 who is sold in the sex trade is by legal definition a victim of human trafficking.
By perpetuating the fallacy of child prostitution, the plea deals in this case send entirely the wrong measure.
Even worse, another unintended message was sent to other traffickers: If you are caught in Marion County, the punishment may be light.
Sex trafficking is a business, and like other business people, traffickers calculate risk and reward. If punishment means being sentenced to watch hour after hour of Netflix in your home, then the risk would appear to be quite low.
A spokeswoman for the prosecutor’s office insisted that Terry Curry and his team take child trafficking seriously. And I don’t question that assertion. These cases are complicated, and the justice system often delivers less than satisfying outcomes.
But that doesn’t change the fact that a child was sexually exploited in our community. And those who profited from her exploitation will be barely punished.
Swarens: House arrest — for selling a child Tim Swarens March 24, 201Tweet