The first Louisville Human Trafficking Summit attracted a packed room at the Frazier Museum on Tuesday, with advocates, researchers, law enforcement and victims discussing the scope of sex trafficking in Louisville, as well as strategies to combat the problem and provide services for victims who escape their ordeal.
Louisville Metro Police Chief Steve Conrad opened the summit, telling attendees that the city is far from immune to sex trafficking — particularly that of children — and the community needs to be united in making a difference.
“The truth is, we need help,” said Conrad. “I wish I could tell you that human trafficking isn’t a problem in our community, but it is. We see it all too often. I wish that wasn’t the case, but you need to know that the young people in our community are at risk. They absolutely are.”
In legal terms, human trafficking involves using force, fraud or coercion against a victim to compel them into sexual or labor exploitation. According to figures from the Kentucky Rescue & Restore Coalition, 332 victims have been identified in the state since 2008, a figure that has doubled from the organization’s 2014 analysis. Nearly 80 percent of such victims are trafficked for sex, and 60 percent are children.
Conrad highlighted his department’s coordination with the FBI to investigate trafficking, particularly around large tourist events when the demand for such criminal activity increases. He said that during the Farm and Machinery Show in February, 18 individuals were charged with prostitution and three with promoting prostitution, while during the Kentucky Derby those numbers increased to 31 and seven.
While building a prosecutable case against traffickers is important, Conrad emphasized that those selling sex are victims who have been manipulated and need help, whether that be kicking a drug addiction or receiving mental health services to work through their trauma and reintegrate into society the best they can. He noted that two human trafficking victims were recovered during the Derby and the Kentucky State Fair and are now receiving such services, as “these are two people that have an opportunity to truly change the course of their lives.”
“The truth is, they are victims, and we need to do our best to educate this community and the media and the courts — and even our officers — to understand that these victims need justice. They need our support, and we must do everything we can to make sure we are doing that.”
Ernie Allen, a Louisville native who is one of the nation’s foremost experts and advocates for exploited children, gave an hour-long talk about the myths of human trafficking that need to be torn down before society understands the scope of the problem.
Allen — who founded the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children in 1984 — said it is a common misconception that sex trafficking only occurs in faraway countries, or, if in America, only in big cities involving foreigners smuggled into the country. Instead, the most common victims are American children from all demographics and regions who run away from their homes, becoming powerless and vulnerable targets, often lured by drugs and then manipulated by their addiction and captors.
Another myth is that sex trafficking is “victimless crime,” Allen said, adding that “it’s not about sex or work. It’s about 21st century slavery. These victims cannot walk away.” While pushing for less prosecution of victims and more social and mental health services to help them, he said that non-governmental organizations have become the primary providers of such victim services and are swamped by the volume of demand.
“In most of the country, social service systems are not prepared and do not have available services for these types of victims,” said Allen. “So we need to address this not just through an NGO private-sector model… we’ve also got to enhance the abilities of the governmental agencies who are doing this work.”
Another common mythology around sex trafficking is that it is a “street crime” that only happens in the “bad parts of town,” with Allen noting such business has moved “from the streets to the Internet,” with “escort” websites like Backpage.com that openly advertise sex.
Online sex ads prevalent in Louisville
Criminal Justice professor Theresa Hayden of the University of Louisville and Diana Anderson, co-chair of the Louisville Human Trafficking Task Force, revealed the results of their multi-year study that shows just how prominent — and brazen — such advertisements are in Louisville.
In the study, Anderson — then a research assistant at U of L — tracked Backpage sex ads in Louisville for a period of 15 months in 2013 and 2014. Not only were many of the ads explicit in their intent — adding the locations of the hotel, 60 percent featuring a photo with a face, and code words for the price of sex acts offered — but they came to a staggering total of 20,384, averaging 53 per day. While those listing the age of the woman averaged 25 years old, Anderson determined 12 percent of the ads were potentially for a minor, often accompanied with code words indicating she was a virgin.
For those providing a location in the ad — usually hotels — the most common one was a hotel off the Hurstborne exit on Interstate 64, in the middle of the more affluent East End.
While these ads spiked during the 2013 and 2014 Kentucky Derby, they actually were highest when the Yum! Center hosted the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament. In a follow-up analysis of 2015, such ads spiked against during the Derby, Thunder over Louisville, and the NCAA tournament in March.
Last week, Anderson visited Jefferson County Public Schools to conduct 23 training sessions, during which two kids disclosed to her that they were being sold — one for drugs and one for money. “We’re failing our kids,” she said. “I see it every day.” Anderson lauded the LMPD for having a great relationship with the task force, which has 32 organizations participating in it, saying collaboration across different groups and the allocation of sufficient resources is crucial.
“Louisville has an opportunity to set a precedent in the Ohio Valley,” said Anderson. “You have to be willing to work together and collaborate… Our job is to support our LMPD, give them the training they need, give them the supplies they need, give them the education they need… We have a lot of great things in line, but it all comes back to if you don’t have the resources, none of it’s going to work.”