Report: Kentucky authorities investigated 20 allegations of child human trafficking

vhoneycutt@herald-leader.comDecember 8, 2013 

Children prostituting themselves for drugs. A child under 18 stripping for money. A guardian offering to sell a child for money or place the child in a prostitution ring.

Those allegations surfaced in cases reviewed this year by the Cabinet for Health and Family Services. The cases also were part of the cabinet's first Kentucky Child Victims of Human Trafficking report to the Legislative Research Commission.

From June 26 through Oct. 18, child protection officials in Kentucky investigated 20 allegations of human trafficking involving 25 children, the report said. The annual report is required by the Human Trafficking Victim's Rights Act, a state law that went into effect this year.

"It tells us that Kentucky is unfortunately a state that is rife with human trafficking," said Gretchen Hunt, staff attorney for the Kentucky Association of Sexual Assault Programs. But Hunt said the report also shows that the new law is working to raise awareness and respond to children who are trafficked by non-caretakers — by boyfriends, by pimps, by people other than family members.

The big change that the new law brings is that the victims are no longer viewed as criminals, and Cabinet for Health and Family Services child protection officials can help them even if the perpetrator trafficking them is not a family member, said Hunt.

The report — and the new law — capture information that would have slipped through the cracks before, said Marissa Castellanos, human trafficking program manager with Catholic Charities of Louisville. The Cabinet likely would have heard about the six cases in the report involving a child's caretaker, Castellanos said. But cases involving the 14 allegations in the report in which the known perpetrator was not in a caretaker role might not have come to the attention of child protection officials, she said.

Kentucky's first report on child victims of human trafficking said the allegations investigated involving children 17 and younger included:

■ Victims prostituting themselves in exchange for drugs.

■ A victim having a pimp.

■ A victim stripping for money.

■ A guardian offering to sell the victim for money or into a prostitution ring.

■ Victims working as prostitutes in a massage parlor.

■ A victim from another state running away.

■ Victims advertising for prostitution.

Human trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery in which people profit from the control and exploitation of others, according to the website for the Polaris Project, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that fights human trafficking. As defined under federal law, victims of human trafficking include children involved in the sex trade, adults who are coerced or deceived into commercial sex acts, and anyone forced into forms of "labor or services," such as domestic workers held in a home or farm workers forced to labor against their will. The factors that each of these situations have in common are elements of force, fraud, or coercion. That control is tied to inducing someone into commercial sex acts, or labor or services, the website said.

Hunt says what distinguishes child sex trafficking from child sexual abuse is that something of commercial value is exchanged, whether it be drugs, rent, food or money. The buyer of the sex is culpable, and often a third party is selling the child, Castellanos said.

Castellanos said child trafficking can also involve labor exploitation with force, fraud or coercion.

In the report, three of the allegations were found to be unsubstantiated. In those cases, there was no evidence found that the children met the legal definition of a human trafficking victim. Two pending cases appeared to have enough evidence to substantiate allegations against a caretaker.

Fourteen cases were still in the early stages of investigation.

The report issued Nov. 1 did not provide specific details of the cases. But it said 17 of the victims were 14 years old or older — the youngest was 1. An unknown perpetrator was alleged in six cases, and there was one foreign-born victim.

Prior to the new law, anyone under 18 engaged in commercial sex was defined as a victim of trafficking, said Hunt. But children were still being criminally charged with prostitution, and there was not a good system to serve victims, Hunt said.

The report said Kentucky has some of the strongest, most comprehensive "safe harbor" laws, which protect child victims of human trafficking, in the nation.

Kentucky is described in the report as the only state to ensure that all child victims of human trafficking are not charged with prostitution or status offenses — offenses that are crimes only because of a juvenile's age — committed in connection to being trafficked.

If a child is a victim of human trafficking, the law now says that they shall not be charged or adjudicated guilty with status offenses such as truancy or running away that are connected to the human trafficking, said Hunt. People who buy houses or property with money they made from trafficking children are now subject to having that property seized, Castellanos said.

Public defenders and judges are attending training sessions on the new law, said Hunt.

Due to the newness of the laws, the infrastructure to provide services to victims is still under development, the report said.

Kentucky is "doing a good job so far," Castellanos said, by identifying the cases so that the Cabinet can follow up and help victims.

The report details the Cabinet's efforts to ensure the safety of child victims, collaboration among multiple agencies during the course of investigations and response and continuing efforts to better serve victims.

"These are children traumatized by one of the worst crimes you can imagine," said Hunt, "and they deserve to be treated as victims rather than criminals."

Valarie Honeycutt Spears: (859) 231-3409. Twitter:@vhspears

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