An advocate who works with human trafficking victims throughout Kentucky said she works with about 30 people each year — nearly three times the number of victims who actually had their cases prosecuted in 2013.
According to statistics from Kentucky's Administrative Office of the Courts, the number of human trafficking cases in Kentucky has grown from one in 2007 to 12 so far in 2013. But "there are a lot more cases in reality than what even gets charged," said Marissa Castellanos, human trafficking program manager with Catholic Charities of Louisville.
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.
Nearly a year ago, Kentucky received a "D" for its weak human trafficking laws by a national anti-trafficking organization which ranked states based on 41 criteria.
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For years, advocates have pushed to get more teeth in Kentucky's human trafficking laws. There have been some improvements, but advocates say more can be done.
Earlier in 2013, a comprehensive law passed that afforded several more protections for victims, including more notifications to law enforcement, said Gretchen Hunt, a staff attorney for the Kentucky Association of Sexual Assault Programs.
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Even with the improvements, there are still some challenges in the way Kentucky handles the cases, advocates say.
Kentucky needs to educate more professionals about human trafficking, needs more victims services, and more "boots on the ground of people working on these cases," said Hunt, who says Castellanos is the only full-time advocate in the state.
And all counties — rural and urban — need the same sort of resources that have allowed larger Kentucky cities to successfully prosecute human trafficking cases, she said.
AOC records from 2007 to 2013 indicate that several charges filed were amended down or dismissed.
Woodford Commonwealth's Attorney Gordie Shaw said a case's success can depend on whether the first law enforcement officer who gets the case has experience investigating human trafficking.
"Who gets the complaint first?" Shaw asked — a patrol officer with no experience in the area, or an experienced detective who has worked a number of human trafficking cases?
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Even though there is heightened awareness about human trafficking and more cases are being identified, it's not something prosecutors in smaller towns see monthly, said Shaw.
Shaw said some of the cases involve "an agreement made in another country for transportation and servitude involved ... versus kids who are being abducted or sold to be trafficked for profit and sex purposes."
But Shaw said there could be multiple factors that could put a case on hold. Earlier this year, a parent in Woodford County was accused of trying to sell a child.
Shaw says that case was dismissed in district court because of multiple factors, but it is under review and could still be heard by a grand jury.
U.S. Attorney Kerry Harvey told WKYT-TV that human trafficking cases can also be difficult to prosecute when the alleged victim and the perpetrators come from a different culture and victims are afraid to speak up.
The idea that human trafficking can "occur right here in the commonwealth of Kentucky in the year 2013 is just so outrageous that we can't accept that sort of conduct," he said.
"I think everyone would agree with that," Harvey said.
On Tuesday, Attorney General Jack Conway, along with 46 other state and territorial attorneys general, sent a letter asking Congress to fund the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act. The funding would go toward programs that fight human trafficking in the United States and abroad.
"It's happening across the country, including right here in Kentucky," Conway said in a news release. "This is mission-critical funding necessary to better protect victims of human trafficking and prosecute traffickers."
Meanwhile, Castellanos said that her group received funding from the attorney general's office, specifically targeting child sex trafficking victims.
The campaign involves printed sticks of lip balm that say "Have you felt forced or tricked into stripping, having sex, or other sex acts? There is HOPE."
Volunteers are going into Kentucky communities, including Lexington, to put the lip balm in places — such as hotel lobby rest rooms and truck stop rest rooms — where trafficked children are likely to pass through.
If they take the lip balm, then they can call a hotline from anywhere in the country to get help, she said.
The number of human trafficking cases prosecuted in Kentucky courts from 2007 to 2012.
2007 - 1
2008 - 3
2009 - 2
2010 - 4
2011 - 5
2012 - 10
2013 - 12
SOURCE: The Kentucky Administrative Office of the Courts
The National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC) is available to answer calls and texts from anywhere in the country, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, every day of the year. Call 1-888-373-7888 or text BeFree (233733).
Freedom Taken? is part of a joint investigation by the Herald-Leader and WKYT, and is available on Kentucky.com and WKYT.com. See additional reports on WKYT at 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. Thursday.