Law enforcement combats trafficking
Several local and federal law enforcement officials who have combatted trafficking on the ground in Louisville detailed their approach with the audience, noting their task is especially challenging due to the complex nature of the crime and the psychological manipulation of victims.
Special Agent Nick Zarro of the FBI’s Louisville unit noted that while it’s relatively simple to prosecute under the federal Mann Act — prohibiting the transport of someone between states for the purpose of prostitution — building a case for the sex trafficking of an adult is much harder, often taking years.
Also making such cases challenging is the difficulty in building trust with the victims, who have been manipulated by their captors. Detective Brian Wright of the LMPD’s Crimes Against Children Unit said that after sting operations to expose prostitution — necessitating the use of false pretenses — they often hand off victims to other officers, such as Nicole Dathorne, a victim’s specialist with local FBI division.
In addition to physical coercion and threats, Dathorne added that the majority of these victims suffer from severe drug addiction and are dependent on their pimps to supply them with drugs. Before such victims are willing and able to cooperate with law enforcement, they often need to accept services offered to break such addictions and deal with the mental trauma they have experienced.
LMPD narcotics detective Paul Neal said he’s seen a lot of drugs in his career, “but I haven’t seen anything like heroin… The majority of the victims that we deal with are strung out and addicted to heroin, and that’s their main focus, getting their next fix, making their next transaction so they can get their drugs.”
Neal says he has seen cases where family members were directly involved in the exploitation of victims. In one bust, a 19-year-old woman was driven to the site by her mother, who waited for her in the car with two toddlers.
The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children’s Ernie Allen applauded the LMPD’s prioritization of prosecuting the exploiters instead of the victims, saying law enforcement needs a coordinated effort to disrupt the traffickers’ online business model and go after customers. He said that effort should include the increased vigilance and awareness of businesses that inadvertently facilitate such crimes, such as the owners of hotels, transportation companies and financial institutions — not to mention the owners of websites like Backpage, which can less credibly claim ignorance.
“Until we increase the risk and eliminate the profitability, this problem will stay with us,” said Allen. “And the single biggest issue is demand. There is enormous demand in this society for sex with kids… When you create accountability, you create deterrence. And until we attack the demand, there’s always going to be somebody who’s going to try to profit off of it.”
Victims share their stories
Several survivors of labor and sex trafficking also recounted their harrowing stories to the audience, noting the work they have done to provide services to survivors since their bonds were broken.
Margeaux Gray, who was forced into a childhood of sex trafficking beginning at the age of 5, said that efforts to tackle the problems cannot end once a person is liberated from their captors.
“A lot of people think that once a victim becomes physically free – and I thought it, too – they are free,” said Gray. “I was physically free, but psychologically is where the bond and the chains have lasted, even to today. Even with as much therapy and healing and recovery that I have done, it still affects me today.”
Gray — who said it might have appeared to an outsider that she lived a normal childhood — noted that her plight could have been ended earlier if professionals had noticed the warning signs of her condition, noting that a child protective services employee missed her signs of trauma, as did doctors and school officials. She added that such professionals should be fully trained on how to spot the red flags of victims so that people like her can be rescued.
Angela T., a survivor of sex trafficking from age 3 to 29, later founded the Kristy Love Foundation, which provides shelter and services for other survivors of human trafficking. In addition to helping victims cope with the aftermath of their ordeal, Love echoed Gray’s call for the community to be on the lookout for potential victims, saying “we need to meet at the beginning, not the end.”