$1 million federal grant awarded to fight human trafficking in Kentucky

(LEX 18) — In Kentucky, we often hear about human trafficking around Derby time. But experts know it’s not just happening around that one weekend. It’s happening every day in all types of communities.

The University of Louisville Human Trafficking Research Initiative studies it. Researchers spent two years on Project PIVOT: Prevention and Intervention for Victims of Trafficking, and their findings are troubling.

“We learned that child trafficking is primarily happening at the hands of family members – people in our community that we know, live next to or interact with,” said Dr. Jennifer Middleton, the principal investigator for Project PIVOT.

That information doesn’t surprise Eileen Levy, the executive director of The Well of Lexington. The group provides a holistic program of safe housing, recovery support, education, and healing for women exploited by sex trafficking. It also provides safety and outreach programs to keep children from falling prey to sex traffickers.

“It’s here in Kentucky,” Levy said when asked about where human trafficking is taking place.

“Locally, familial trafficking is the most common form, which is where families are selling their children, nieces, nephews,” Levy explained.

Levy also has scary news for parents. Any child with a smartphone can be contacted by traffickers.

“They go through apps. They get to know their child – that coercion part. They’re master manipulators,” said Levy. “They’re going to be that boyfriend, that friend, wait for that person to get into a fight with their base – like their support system – and they get them away from their support system. It’s very easily done.”

Kentucky wants to do something to stop child trafficking. On Wednesday, Gov. Andy Beshear announced that a $1 million federal grant from the U.S. Department of Justice will help the state address the findings from Project PIVOT.

“It is a difficult and often dark world, and the things that happen to some of our kids not only bring tears to our eyes but keep us up at night,” said Beshear.

Beshear said his administration is working to carry out the project’s recommendations, which include the Department for Community Based Services (DCBS) creating an advisory council, launching a human trafficking and child labor screening tool to identify high-risk children, and hiring a full-time child protection specialist.

The advisory council will work to identify a human trafficking and child labor screening tool, funded by this grant, which will be used to reveal victimization for both sex and labor trafficking of children and youth.

Project PIVOT also pointed to the following policy recommendations:

  • Tap into existing child advocacy centers as anti-trafficking resources: Findings indicate an increased likelihood of child trafficking cases being confirmed if a forensic interview is conducted at a child advocacy center. The study’s authors recommend regional consultants be partnered with and perhaps housed within regional child advocacy centers.
  • Hold family members accountable: This study revealed that significantly more cases with non-relative perpetrators (39.6%) had a case outcome of substantiation or founding when compared to cases with family member perpetrators (21.1%). Investigators, advocates and others reported concerns about family members as traffickers being less likely to be charged or receiving a reduced charge or finding, such as child sexual abuse.

“Identification of the commercial aspect of the sexual exploitation can allow law enforcement to broaden the scope of the investigation to potentially include buyers of commercial sex,” said Dr. Middleton. “Until more buyers of commercial sex are arrested and charged with criminal offenses, the demand for commercial sex with children will continue unabated.”

If you believe you may have information about a trafficking situation, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888.

The Well of Lexington also provides good tips on recognizing potential threats.

According to the group, someone you know may be in a sex trafficking situation if:

  • They have an older, or controlling parent, guardian, romantic partner or “sponsor” who will not allow them to meet or speak with a person alone or monitors their movements, spending and/or communications
  • They are children who live with and are dependent on a family member with a substance abuse problem or who is abusive in other ways
  • They work in an industry where it may be common to be pressured into performing sex acts for money, such as strip clubs, illicit cantinas, go-go bars, or illicit massage businesses
  • They disclose that they were reluctant to engage in selling sex but someone pressured them into it

You can read Project PIVOT’s full study below: