Infographics by Simon Isham/The Louisville Cardinal

By Rae Hodge–

About $32 billion dollars are generated annually by the global swirl of 27 million human trafficking victims. The U.S. State Department estimates that more than 100,000 of those victims exist in this country. Some are tied to stained mattresses in motels off I-65. Some are polishing the silver, and crouching and captive in the basements of the wealthy. In Kentucky, 91 cases have been documented in the last five years. Over half are children. After 15 state and federal indictments in Kentucky, only one trafficker has been successfully prosecuted.

At U of L, a spark of outrage ignited more than a hundred people on a Wednesday night, who filed into the Red Barn to hear a conference on human trafficking hosted by Women 4 Women.

The conference comes as Kentucky takes its first tenuous steps to undermine human trafficking along its highways. The trial of Marco Antonio Flores-Benitez on May 25 of last year marked Kentucky’s first and only federal sex trafficking conviction. Flores-Benitez is serving 15 years for recruiting Spanish-speaking women with the help of three accomplices and promises of legitimate work, and then shuttling the women through the tri-state area, exploiting them at a rate of $30 for 15 minutes.

“The campus has a role in this. Everyone has a role in this fight,” says Emma Chapman, the junior equine administration major who organized the conference.

Kentucky’s research universities are quickly becoming more crucial to untangling the Commonwealth’s problem with what’s being called modern slavery.

The most frequently cited numbers in Kentucky media reports right now are coming from two studies which are both already six years old. One is a University of Kentucky report by Dr. T.K. Logan, another is an Eastern Kentucky University study from their Justice and Safety Center.

More recently, The University of Louisville presented a 2011 Grawmeyer Award and

$100,000 to author Kevin Bale, president of the Washington D.C. based human rights organization, Free the Slaves, for his work implementing the strategy in his book, “Ending Slavery: How We Free Today’s Slaves”.

Kentucky graduate and undergraduate groups are becoming key components both in estimating the scope of this problem and moving the topic into public dialogue. When they aren’t holding conferences, they’re writing a repository of research papers, collecting data, or stuffing pamphlets into outstretched hands while manning booths.

Northern Kentucky University has just been secured a $7,200 grant to begin documenting the human trafficking problem in their region. Northern Kentucky is under-documented and has been called a magnet location due to its combination of high-risk factors like highway and airport access, prostitution and drug trade problems, as well as low-income families. The majority of the data will be collected by students under Honors Program director Belle Zembrodt.

Abby Clevenger, a sophomore communications major, works for Women 4 Women and is also a Volunteer Coordinator for PEACC (Prevention, Education, and Advocacy on Campus and in the Community). Clevenger talked about the connection between the work of both groups. “I think that there’s a connection between anyone who experiences domestic and sexual violence, and people who experience human trafficking,” Clevenger said. “PEACC attended the event, and had a table. And we were glad to come out and show support. It was nice to see so many

members of the community come out, and not just the campus.”

“Even the athletic department donated to our silent auction,” said Chapman, who noted that contributions came in the form of U of L pullovers, windbreakers, a drawstring backpack and t-shirts. “The university has been fantastic in supporting us.”

The proceeds from the event itself are scheduled to send students to Peru, where they can study Latin American models of human trafficking more closely, aid the victims and recover their stories.

The Polaris Project, a leading anti-trafficking organization, is named after the guiding star that once led slaves in the U.S. to freedom. The organization, now in its 11th year, has successfully pushed for anti-trafficking legislation in 48 states, spending over $4 million dollars just in 2011 fighting for the cause. The Polaris Project was started in 2002 by Catherine Chon and Derek Ellerman, two outraged seniors who launched their organization from the campus of Brown University.

The Polaris Project also created the National Human Trafficking Resource Center which fields calls about human trafficking and charts the data. It has recently released 2012’s third quarter data for Kentucky. Numbers are up for hotline calls in the state: 139 as of Sept, compared to 150 total calls in 2011 and 110 in 2010, with only a fraction attributed to requests for general information and the largest number of calls originating from Spanish-speakers in Louisville.

It was also The Polaris Project that first drew the attention of Kentucky State Rep. Sannie Overly, D-Paris, to the horrors of a then-unknown phenomenon of domestic and children’s slave labor. The Polaris Project team arranged an event at a National Conference of State Legislatures held in in Atlanta, Georgia which Overly attended.

“It was the children’s slave labor that really brought it home for me,” said Overly, “particularly as it is sort of an off-shoot of the drug epidemic that we have in Kentucky. It’s a sort of cross-over.”

A similar connection was recently made by Jefferson Co.’s new Commonwealth Attorney, former judge Thomas Wine, who noted the rise in both prescription drug abuse and human trafficking in Louisville Metro. “It’s very unfortunate that young girls are being used as a commodity, and that becomes another issue of territory. And we’re going to see a lot more issues of people and violence and trying to protect their territory,” said Wine, who is now struggling under a state-wide five percent budget cut to the offices of Attorneys General which translates to a $180,000 cut to Jefferson Co.’s.

Dr. Tricia Gray, a professor of international relations and Latin American political science at U of L, clarified the connection between the drug trade and human trafficking. “A lot of it is tied to illegal smuggling in general,” Gray said, “and tied to immigration smuggling, like the use of coyotes. Of course, any route that is used to smuggle drugs — or anything like that — can be used (for humans).”

Overly has been Kentucky’s most outspoken advocate for human trafficking victims in the state legislature. While Kentucky originally adopted laws in 2007 aimed at banning human trafficking, many have claimed that law enforcement lacks adequate training to handle the crimes.

“Those laws are not being utilized,” Overly told legislators. Overly sponsored legislation in 2012, House Bill 350, to strengthen Kentucky’s laws against human trafficking, create a fund for victims and provide specific training to police officers in identifying and stopping these crimes. Rep. John Tilley, D-Hopkisville and co-sponsor of HB 350, said of the 2007 law, “It needs more teeth.”

American Bar Association president Laurel Bellows noted in a McClatchy-Tribune article this year that “Even as human trafficking is chronicled in cities, small towns and rural areas across the country, a mere 18 percent of 3,300 local, county and state law enforcement agencies surveyed in a 2008 National Institute of Justice study had some type of human trafficking training; only 9 percent had a protocol or training on human trafficking.”

In the hearing for HB 350, Overly testified for hours before a silent Senate Judiciary Committee in Frankfort, persisting even when the crowd left and the cameras were removed. When the press trickled out, it was only The Louisville Cardinal, U of L’s campus newspaper, which remained to report on Overly, whose determination and composure never flagged, even as committee members began to rise and leave. Their numbers dwindled, and eventually dropped beneath the amount necessary for a quorum. No vote could be called, yet Overly continued to speak until the last minute of the hearing had passed; the legislation, which sailed through the House of Representatives in a 99-0 vote, was stalled in a committee of less than a dozen.

Earlier this month Overly became the first woman to be elected to a leadership position in the Kentucky House of Representatives. Overly had just emerged from the enormous wooden doors of the Kentucky Supreme Court and announced her appointment when The Louisville Cardinal asked Overly if she planned to re-introduce the bill during the 2013 session, “It’s here” said Overly. “It’s back.”

For people like the 13-year-old girl in Bowling Green who was forced into prostitution by a family member last October; for the 17-year-old girl in Louisville whose body got bartered for heroin last July; for the Hispanic women held hostage in a Lexington apartment in 2011; for the Filipino woman who was made to work 18-hour days for a Kentucky family in 2007 — Kentucky’s laws could be changing. Student voices are chanting these women’s names, demanding that lawmakers set their sparks of outrage to tender. In Kentucky, Overly is poised to strike the match.