A University of Louisville study shows that nearly 41 percent of homeless youth surveyed in the Louisville area reported they have been the victim of sex trafficking, typically coerced into performing a sexual act in return for money or lodging.
The findings were announced at a press conference Wednesday by lead author Dr. Jennifer Middleton, assistant professor at UofL’s Kent School of Social Work and co-director of the UofL Human Trafficking Research Initiative. Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear also spoke at the event, declaring that the study would help his office’s mission of protecting human trafficking victims that are “often the most marginalized in our society.”
“In the commonwealth of Kentucky, there is no such thing as a child prostitute,” said Beshear. “That is a victim, a child of God, who is being trafficked.”
The study surveyed 132 young people ages 12 to 25 who are served by eight Louisville and southern Indiana organizations focusing on homeless youth. Of those completing the survey, 40.9 percent indicated they have been sex trafficked, including nearly half of female participants and nearly a third of male participants.
Of those who reported being a victim of sex trafficking at some point, the average age of their first trafficking experience was 16.4 years old, with 35 percent indicating this happened before reaching the age of 18. Nearly 30 percent of such respondents indicated they were being sex trafficked at the time of the survey. Most indicated they were trafficked in exchange for money or lodging, though nearly 40 percent said they also received food or drugs.
When compared to the population of homeless youth in the survey who reported not being sex trafficked, these victims were much more likely to have survived a suicide attempt, been diagnosed with one or more mental health problem, and been the victim of dating violence, parental abuse or sexual abuse as a child. Sex trafficking victims also were much more likely to engage in self-harming or risk-taking behaviors, drug use and not eating for long periods.
The study found that 70 percent of victims reported that technology was used for the purpose of recruiting them into sex trafficking or facilitating a sex-trading situation, with a smartphone being used in 35 percent of those situations. Nearly 30 percent of respondents indicated that Backpage.com — a website notorious for facilitating sex trafficking — was used in such situations, followed by Facebook at 22 percent and Snapchat at 15 percent. Roughly 10 percent indicated that either dating websites, Craigslist or Twitter were used to recruit them as victims or as a tool by their trafficker.
Middleton said that while this particular survey did not ask for details about the victim’s trafficker, it is common knowledge that the exploiter “could be anyone” in the young person’s life, as with children it is commonly “a family member or someone in a position of trust within a family,” if not a boyfriend or partner working with an outside party. She added that the goal of the study’s authors is to make this an annual project if more funding is obtained, and to expand the study statewide in Kentucky and Indiana to more homeless youth service providers. In addition to adding questions about the victims’ traffickers, Middleton hopes to expand the surveys to youth in detention centers or in the child welfare system.
The eight homeless youth service providers assisting with the study were YMCA Safe Place Services, TAYLRD, Home of the Innocents, Center for Women and Families and the Kristy Love Foundation in Louisville, in addition to Haven House, Clark County Youth Shelter and the Floyd County Youth Services in Indiana. Middleton said these eight organizations served 1,700 homeless youth in 2016, which would amount to 695 sex trafficking victims if the 41 percent was true of that entire population.
Angela Renfro, director of the Kristy Love Foundation and a survivor of sex trafficking as a child, said at the press conference that “this research shows what we have known for a very long time: that human trafficking is happening right here in our state, right her in Louisville, Kentucky and also Indiana. It happens to our kids and young people.”
“Human trafficking is a crime and its victim is often hidden, which makes awareness especially important, and also difficult to achieve,” said Renfro, adding that it’s important to expand initiatives to provide free training and promote hotlines so that people can report activity that may disrupt trafficking and save lives.
Bipartisan legislation has been filed in the Kentucky General Assembly this year that would require truckers to be trained on how to spot human trafficking and report it, and Beshear noted that trucking and lodging organizations are increasingly partnering in such efforts to train their members and employees.
“If every trucker on our roads, if every hotel worker – likely parents of their own – are thinking about protecting everyone else’s children, too, and are trained to recognize the signs, there will be no place for these traffickers to hide,” said Beshear. “We will run them out of our state, and hopefully help a lot of people who are being horrendously abused.”
Beshear noted that reports of human trafficking to state government have “increased by 50 percent year over year over year, and it is still underreported,” while his office is using a new $1.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to target traffickers and follow up on hotline tips, in addition to hiring a new full-time investigator on those cases. He added that the UofL study will greatly help those efforts by allowing the office to focus its resources.
“We live in a time of scarce resources, and we need to make sure that we deploy those resources (correctly) – whether it’s where we’re focusing our investigations or where we’re focusing our victims’ services,” said Beshear. “This type of actual data, not just anecdotal, but actually data, is so significant. This report will help us better target where we can spend our time, our dollars, our effort… to make the biggest difference.”
Beshear referred to the statistic of 41 percent of homeless youth survey indicating that they have been victims of sex trafficking “alarming” and “revealing.”
The fact that 41 percent of homeless youth surveyed indicated they have been victims of sex trafficking is both “alarming” and “revealing,” Beshear said.
“Those are real people, those are real children, they’re in our community and they need our help,” he said. “They are in danger, we must help them, and we must bring the predators that are trafficking them to justice… We will not be able to end human trafficking in Kentucky without addressing, if not ending, homelessness among our youth. The two are connected.”