Human trafficking: awareness fuels increased reports in Kentucky

Aug 11, 2021 | News

By Nicole Ziege

While Patterson’s father was working, Patterson said, her mother took her to motor courts and motels by the river where mats were laid out on the floor and large studio lights were set up for photography. It was at these locations where, Patterson said, she was sexually assaulted and abused by men.

It was the “dark secret” of her family, Patterson said. Patterson, now 63, said she assumed that the trauma she experienced from the ages of 3 to 7 was child abuse. It was not until she was an adult that she realized she had been a victim of human trafficking.

“You didn’t talk about stuff like that,” said Patterson. “It’s only now that we’re beginning to focus on human trafficking.”

Human trafficking on a state level

Human trafficking reports have increased from 51 alleged victims in 2013 to 208 in 2016, a more than 300 percent increase, according to a recent report from the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Human Services.

The rise in human trafficking has been attributed to an increase in awareness of the crime, rather than an increase in the crime itself, according to officials.

“I don’t think that there’s been an increase in human trafficking,” said Allyson Taylor, the director of the Office of Child Abuse and Exploitation Prevention. “I think there’s been an increase in reporting, and that’s because people are becoming more aware of what it is because of efforts like ours and efforts of Catholic Charities, telling the general public what human trafficking really is.”

Taylor, who is the point of contact for the Kentucky attorney general’s office for human trafficking, said that she and Attorney General Andy Beshear want to take a “wrap-around approach” to raise awareness about the crime.

She said that they are working with groups like the Kentucky Baptist Convention and the Kentucky Hotel and Lodging Association to implement training programs for hotels, the hospitality industry and tourism in the state. She said they have also worked with Free2Hope, which is an organization out of Louisville that gives information to hotels, strip clubs and restaurants.

Taylor said they are training first responders, paramedics, firefighters, environmental inspectors and social workers how to identify possible signs of human trafficking and how to report it. Beshear hosted the Advanced Human Trafficking Investigation Training from April 19 to April 21 in Louisville, which was designed for police officers, prosecutors and judges, with a special focus on members of the Kentucky Human Trafficking Task Force, Taylor said.

“We’re pretty much making ourselves the go-to for any possible prevention, awareness, education, investigation or prosecution of human trafficking of any kind across the state for anyone who wants our help, or that we can help,” Taylor said.

Beshear and Taylor partnered with the Kentucky Trucking Association, the Kentucky Baptist Convention and Truckers Against Trafficking, which is a national nonprofit organization that provides training to truck drivers, to propose legislation to raise awareness and increase education about human trafficking.

The two bills, House Bill 266 and Senate Bill 141, would require anyone applying for a commercial driver’s license to complete training from a Truckers Against Trafficking training program online on how to identify and report human trafficking. However, the proposed legislation did not pass in the last session of the state legislature.

Taylor said that although the legislation did not pass, it “did have the support of everyone involved,” including the Commercial Vehicle Enforcement with the Kentucky State Police, who does licensing for commercial drivers.

“Hopefully next session, we’ll make that a mandatory training for our drivers,” Taylor said.

To investigate human trafficking cases in the state, however, Taylor said that it would “really help” if the state legislature would allow the attorney general’s office to have the jurisdiction to prosecute the cases. When going forward with an investigation, Taylor said that the attorney general’s office has to stop and turn the investigation over to a local prosecutor.

“Local prosecutors are great, but they are so busy with all the other cases that they have to deal with that these really intensive human trafficking cases can be a burden,” said Taylor. “It would be a great tool to bring traffickers accountable and then do specialized prosecution for the investigations, if the legislature will give the attorney general’s office the power to prosecute those cases.”

Human trafficking cases are “really intensive” investigations, she said.

“It’s something that maybe a small town, limited-resource police department isn’t going to have enough man power, not because they don’t want to go out and investigate it fully,” Taylor said. “They’re going to need help if they only have a couple detectives and they’ve got all this evidence, so we are offering our services with our investigators.”

Human trafficking on a national and global level

Human trafficking is divided into two categories: sex trafficking and labor trafficking. Sex trafficking involves sexual exploitation, involving activities related to prostitution, pornography, sex tourism and other commercial sexual services, according to the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000.

Judy McKee, the deputy director of the National Training and Research Institute, which is an arm of the National Association of Attorney Generals, said that runaways are at a high risk of becoming child sex trafficking victims. About 1 in 6 of the 18,500 runaways reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in 2016 were likely sex trafficking victims. About 86 percent of those likely sex trafficking victims were in the care of social services and foster care when they went missing, according to the same 2016 National Center report.

Labor trafficking involves bringing in people who are “usually” from overseas to work for long hours for little to no pay, said McKee.

There are 20.9 million victims of human trafficking across the globe, according to a report from the International Labour Organization. About 68 percent of these victims, or about 11.4 million victims, are trapped in forced labor exploitation in activities such as agriculture, construction, domestic work and manufacturing, according to the International Labour Organization report.

About 74 percent, or 15.4 million victims, are adults, while about 26 percent, or 5.5 million victims, are children. About 55 percent, or 11.4 million forced labor victims, are women and girls, while 45 percent, or 9.5 million forced labor victims are men and boys, according to the International Labour Organization report.

“When you talk about trafficking, you’re talking about people who are victimized against their will, and they cannot get out of that situation for one reason or the other,” McKee said.

McKee called human trafficking the “civil rights issue of the 21st century,” calling it a “hidden issue” that goes on in “almost every community.”

“It’s happening to many of our minors, which is particularly concerning because these young men and women who get involved, especially in sex trafficking, it takes years and years of therapy and work for them to ever really live a complete life after that,” said McKee. “It’s a very traumatizing experience.”

McKee said that labor trafficking is “more difficult” to find than sex trafficking because victims of sex trafficking are advertised to the buyer, while labor trafficking victims can be hidden by forcing them to work in isolated areas. She said that victims of labor trafficking can be undocumented workers who are threatened with deportation if they report to the police. McKee said that victims can also be recruited by people from their own country who threaten the families of the victims if they report to the police.

“You really have to have some really well-trained law enforcement and you have to have awareness and help from the federal government if you’re an investigator to find those cases,” said McKee.

McKee said that the statistic of about a 300 percent increase in human trafficking can be “a little deceptive.”

“Because they’re focusing on it and there’s more awareness of law enforcement and prosecutors, they’re seeing it more,” said McKee. “It may mean that there is a 100 percent increase in what they now see as human trafficking when they didn’t recognize it before.”

One of the problems of prosecuting trafficking cases is that a non-government organization that is “experienced” in handling victims and partners with the prosecutor and law enforcement is necessary, said McKee.

“We have to have places where these people can go to get help to get a place to stay, a place to get counseling because they were in traumatizing situations,” said McKee. “If you don’t have that, especially in sex trafficking, these kids often end up back on the streets being victimized again because it’s the only way they know to support themselves.”

Human trafficking in Bowling Green

The desire to help victims of human trafficking drove Dr. Azurdee Garland, 38, to start her own non-profit and non-government organization 10 years ago called “Phoenix Rising.” Garland, the founder and executive director of Phoenix Rising, who was a victim of human trafficking for almost 20 years, said she has worked with more than 100 victims.

She said that her organization is “dedicated to giving victims the opportunity to develop relationships with others who have survived similar experiences and walk with those individuals into healing.”

“Phoenix Rising honors the fight to survive,” said Garland.

Garland, who lost two children to human trafficking, said that one of the major issues with extreme trauma is that the victim will have “complex” post-traumatic stress disorder, or complex PTSD. Complex PTSD is where the victim has experienced extreme trauma consistently for a long period of time, and the victim’s brain has gone into “survivor fight-or-flight mode,” she said.

“You’re gonna see trust issues,” said Garland. “You’re going to see potentials for addiction. You’re going to see mental health concerns, physical health concerns. A victim’s idea of normal is extremely skewed from a non-victim’s idea of normal.”

Garland said that she felt like the city of Bowling Green was “ready” to have an anti-trafficking organization.

“There are other phenomenal organizations that serve different types of domestic violence, sexual violence, sexual assault,” said Garland. “However, given the rise of domestic human trafficking, an organization specifically dedicated to that was a necessity.”

Garland said she believes that the reported rise in human trafficking cases is “kind of a misnomer” because trafficking has “always” existed in Kentucky.

“Since we sit between three international airports or connections to international airports and we have major cross-country highways, we sit in almost like a delta of space,” said Garland. “The reason we’re seeing a rise is because awareness has increased and individuals are more likely now to report and agencies in the community are collecting the data to show cases closer to home.”

Despite the increased awareness of the crime, Garland said she thinks that the state still has “a long way to go.”

“As with any major movement, this takes planting seeds and nurturing a collective knowledge to seek justice and recognizing we save more money by helping victims on the front end, or by preventing trafficking in general, than we do waiting for a victim to have all the mental illness, the physical issues, the psychological, emotional, spiritual trauma that comes with getting out of trafficking,” Garland said.

“I don’t want these people to suffer all those years and not get help,” said Patterson.

Patterson said that Phoenix Rising wants to build an eight-bed facility for girls who are between the ages of 6 and 18 and an eight-bed facility for men between 18 and 24 years old.

Although the 2016 report from the Cabinet for Health and Family Services did not include data for the number of alleged victims who were older than 17 years old, the number of alleged victims who were between the ages of 6 and 17 estimated a total of 415 out of the 447 alleged victims from 2013 to 2016. Over the four reported years in the report, the greatest number of alleged victims came from the age of 16 years old, which totaled 90 victims. Out of the 447 alleged victims in the report, 163, or 79 percent, of them were female, and 40, or 19 percent, of them were male. About five, or 2 percent, of the victims were considered “unknown.”

She said that Phoenix Rising also plans to host yoga classes and rooms for meditation to help victims with coping skills and breathing techniques, which can help anxiety. Patterson said that she did not believe that the government was doing enough to stop human trafficking, saying how the state needed to focus on helping the victims.

“They need trauma-informed care as soon as we get them out of the human trafficking, and it doesn’t matter how long they’ve been out of it,” said Patterson. “They still need trauma informed care. They need counseling. They need education. They need mentors and people to understand it was not their fault.”

Patterson said that she considers herself a “thriver.”

“If I can save one person from being a victim of human trafficking, that’s all that matters,” said Patterson. “You can be a victim, you can become a survivor, and you can become a thriver. Today, I’m a thriver.”

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