A new University of Louisville survey has found that 41 percent of 132 homeless youth surveyed in Louisville and Southern Indiana said they'd been victims of sex trafficking at least once — mostly in exchange for money, drugs or a place to stay.
The survey, performed among those aged 12 to 25 during two weeks in October 2016, provides what advocates say is a rare and badly needed snapshot of the scope of local sex trafficking, an under-reported problem for which evidence is often largely anecdotal.
The study used the federal definition of human trafficking as commercial sex acts through the use of force, fraud or coercion.
Researchers said the results showed that one of two females and one of three males reported being sex-trafficked with the average age of their first such experience at 16, and more than three-quarters were from Kentucky or Indiana. Such victims were more likely to be drug-addicted, diagnosed with more than one mental health problem and have attempted suicide.
"Many Metro Louisville youth are at high-risk for sex trafficking due to high rates of homelessness, child maltreatment, system involvement, and poverty that exist in Kentuckiana," the study found.
Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear said the "data is absolutely critical" to accurately gauge the problem and devote resources to combat it from criminal investigations and victim services. Beshear, who spoke at a news conference at UofL Wednesday to unveil the findings, has made the issue a priority.
“Human trafficking represents the worst form of abuse, often to children, and it is increasing in Kentucky,” Beshear said. "It's still under-reported. Why? Because people do not recognize human trafficking. In the Commonwealth of Kentucky, there is no such thing as a child prostitute — that is a victim."
The Youth Experiences Survey was taken at eight locations including the Home of the Innocents, YMCA Safe Place, The Center for Women and Families and the Clark and Floyd county youth shelters, said lead study author Jennifer Middleton, UofL Human Trafficking Research Initiative co-director and assistant professor at the Kent School of Social Work.
Often, she said, the typical trafficker in Kentucky is "actually a family member or someone in a position of trust within a larger family. Also, it could be someone who is perceived as a boyfriend or a partner ... or an outside party."
Among the survey's findings:
► Nearly 80 percent were born and raised in Kentucky or Indiana, the rest were from 12 other states, Puerto Rico and Mexico.
► About 58 percent reported they had used drugs or alcohol, the most common being marijuana.
► About 42 percent reported a previous suicide attempt.
► About 74 percent reported experiencing a current mental health problem.
Among the 54 respondents who had been trafficked, most said social media or websites were used to make the connections.
Study authors say the survey can't be widely extrapolated because of its limitations, including self-reporting and the possibility that there is a significant difference in victimization rates between homeless youth who seek shelter and those who do not. But they hope to expand the survey across Kentucky in subsequent years.
"This research shows us what we have known for a long time," said Angela Renfro, a former child trafficking victim who founded the only transitional housing in Louisville expressly working to help human-trafficking victims. "It's a topic that needs to be talked about."
A Kentucky Human Trafficking Report in 2015 counted 193 reported incidents (40 in 2013, 57 in 2014, and 96 in 2015) involving 235 alleged victims since reporting began, with Jefferson County accounting for the highest number of incidents, the study noted. Most victims were between 14 and 17 years old, but "professionals in the field believe that these sex trafficking statistics are just the tip of the iceberg."
Beshear cited state efforts such as working with groups from truckers to hotel workers to better recognize signs of human trafficking. And he is supporting bills in the Kentucky General Assembly that would make it easier for his office to join in prosecuting human traffickers around the state, posting hotline numbers at schools and highway rest stops and requiring sex offender registration for those convicted of promoting human trafficking.
UofL study shows 41 percent of homeless youth sex-trafficked Chris Kenning March 1, 2017Tweet