By Ronnie Ellis
CNHI News Service
FRANKFORT — Maybe you think human trafficking only happens in the big cities or on television.
Some statistics might seem to back that up: since 2008 fewer than 20 human trafficking cases have been prosecuted in Kentucky.
But, during that time, according to Rep. Sannie Overly, D-Paris, more than 150 victims have sought and received services from the Kentucky Rescue and Restore Victims of Human Trafficking Program funded by the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement.
Rescue and Restore has six contract coalition members: Catholic Charities of Louisville; the Bluegrass Rape Crisis Center (Lexington); the Women’s Crisis Center (Covington); the Western KY Refugee Mutual Assistance Agency (The International Center) in Bowling Green; the Adanta Sexual Assault Resource Center (Somerset); and the Purchase Area Sexual Assault and Child Advocacy Center (Paducah). The coalition also partners with the Kentucky Association of Sexual Assault Programs to provide training and awareness statewide.
More than 300 calls were made from Kentucky to a national human trafficking hotline between 2007 and 2012.
This spring, Overly told a legislative panel that despite public perception, human trafficking occurs “in our back yards.” This time, after several years when the House of Representatives passed legislation to address the problem, which then died in the Senate, lawmakers listened.
On Tuesday, Gov. Steve Beshear signed into law House Bill 3, sponsored by Overly, which strengthens penalties for those running human trafficking operations and also seeks to help rather than criminalize their victims.
The law is long overdue, according to Sen. Robin Webb, D-Grayson, who has championed the issue for years.
“Ten years ago, when we started talking about human trafficking in Kentucky, people would say that doesn’t happen here,” Webb said. “Well, it does happen here.”
Webb commended Overly for pressing the issue again this year, this time succeeding.
Webb, who is now a member of the Democratic minority in the Republican-controlled Senate, pushed the issue when she was in the Democratic-controlled House, with help from others such as Rep. Susan Westrom, D-Lexington, and former Democratic Sen. David Boswell of Owensboro.
But it took time for lawmakers to understand the scope of the problem and to realize human trafficking regularly occurs even in rural, conservative Kentucky.
Webb credits “a lot of faith-based organizations that elevated public awareness” on the issue for helping change lawmakers’ attitudes. She said she has for years spoken to such groups and women’s organizations trying to raise awareness.
Overly’s legislation strengthens penalties for those profiting from the practice, including fines of up to $10,000 and forfeiting any property used in forced labor or prostitution. The money will be used to finance a fund to help the victims.
That’s where the real progress is, according to both Webb and Overly.
The bill prohibits charging victims with such crimes as prostitution and instead requires they be provided treatment and protective custody.
That’s the “safe harbor” aspect of the new law, Overly said. “That is a major change — a real focus on children who now can’t be charged with a crime.”
Webb said that’s significant because young people are often “forced into the sex trade or into forced labor against their will.”
Overly said many of those victims are children, helpless to fend off predators who force them into prostitution or forced labor.
She said it was once widely believed the victims were mostly “foreign immigrants brought into this country illegally, but I learned in fact that many, many of the victims are American children, often runaways.”
Overly said it is common for such missing children to be approached “within 48 hours of running away” by those always looking for people to force into prostitution. “The average age of entry into prostitution is around 12 or 14,” she said.
Armed with those kinds of lurid statistics, Overly this year found a more sympathetic audience in the Senate. Newly elected Sen. Whitney Westerfield, R-Hopkinsville, a former prosecutor and now chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee carried the bill in the Senate and shepherded its passage there.
Last year Overly sponsored similar legislation that passed the House but died in the Senate. She spent the interim period before this year’s session working with Rep. Addia Wuchner, R-Burlington, and others, Overly convened small meetings with prosecutors, court officials, the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, the Department of Juvenile Justice and defense attorneys to explain the legislation.
Before the session began, they convened a meeting of all those stakeholders and enlisted their support for the change in the law.
“So everyone was on board this time,” Overly said.
Webb says the legislation is a major step forward, but the next step, according to her, is to continue education and training for law enforcement and others to see Overly’s legislation is effectively implemented and enforced.
Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.