The following post first appeared as a Reader Letter in the Courier Journal on March 6, 2013 here. Note: Human trafficking legislation sailed through the House but needs help passing the Senate. 

Human trafficking is a very real problem in Kentucky, and our legislature is poised to pass safe harbor legislation to combat this horrific crime. We cannot let this opportunity pass us by.

So what is the scope of human trafficking in Kentucky and why is safe harbor legislation necessary?

Human trafficking takes place in all sorts of places, like truck stops, where runaways are coerced into commercial sex, and on horse farms and other industries where workers are forced into slavery under threats of deportation and harm to loved ones.

Cases have occurred from Paducah to Richmond, Louisville to Northern Kentucky, in rural and urban areas. Children are trafficked by parents, foster parents and exploitative adults who convince them that they are their boyfriends. The FBI estimates that one in five persons in prostitution is a child, with the average age of entry into prostitution being between 12 and 14 years of age.

Federal law defines these children as trafficking victims, since they cannot consent to being sex slaves. Runaways are at highest risk, with the Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimating that one out of three runaways will be approached for commercial sex within 48 hours of being on the streets. Unfortunately, these children are far more likely to be arrested than are the adults who sell and buy them for sex.

Safe harbor legislation ensures that these child victims, who are so vulnerable and traumatized, receive the services that they need rather than arrest and detention. Not only does this help heal their trauma and avoid a life of continued victimization, it saves the state money. Detention is costly, and it doesn’t work.

Safe harbor legislation also makes it possible for law enforcement to seize assets from human traffickers and charges convicted traffickers with fines to create a Human Trafficking Victims Fund. First responders, including law enforcement and prosecutors, will receive training on trafficking to be able to better identify victims and know where to take them for assistance.

The good news is that training works!

The first successful human trafficking prosecution under Kentucky law began when a recently trained law enforcement officer looked beneath the surface at a drug bust. During the drug buy, the officer was offered sex with a young woman. Rather than simply addressing this as prostitution, he recognized red flags of trafficking and interviewed her. He found out that she was a minor who had been drugged and sold to 15 men in a month and forced to submit to whatever sex crimes they committed against her. She was treated as a victim, and the two individuals exploiting her were charged with human trafficking.

Human trafficking legislation could dramatically improve identification of and treatment of victims, ensuring that these most vulnerable children receive the trauma-informed response they need to heal.

Safe harbor is supported by diverse groups, including prosecutors, defense attorneys, the Justice Cabinet, the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, commonwealth and county attorneys, Kentucky State Police, the Family Foundation, the Catholic Conference and Kentucky Youth Advocates, among others stakeholders.

All Kentuckians should demand that our legislature act now to pass human trafficking legislation and create a safe harbor for Kentucky’s exploited children.

MaryLee Underwood

Staff Attorney

Kentucky Association of Sexual Assault Programs

Frankfort, Ky. 40604