Enslaved in the shadows

Human trafficking is happening in America, in Kentucky, and quite possibly in a home near you

You are a 10-year-old girl.
At an age when many children are learning algebra, playing soccer or taking piano lessons, you’ve been working odd jobs around the house for your parents and for neighbors for as long as you can remember: preparing dinners, washing dishes, cleaning, doing chores and running errands — anything and everything so that your family might eat. The work, as you’ve known it, is part of being in a family. Your parents, naturally, serve as your bosses, directing you about each day’s jobs. It is all you know.

When your parents declare that the family will soon be moving to the United States, you are excited at the prospect, yet scared to leave your home country. In America, your parents tell you, things will be better. Happier. Naturally, you believe them. You are only 10 years old.

Upon your arrival via passenger ship, the relative cleanliness and technology of this new nation astonishes you. Giant buildings and signs pierce the sky. The dirt and the poor have largely disappeared, replaced by asphalt and high-thread count synthetics. Your new home, owned by the wealthy couple that paid your travel expenses, is big, inviting and a far cry from your native poverty and its cramped environs.

But a familiar routine soon reasserts itself. Your living quarters consist of an old, stained mattress cast onto the basement floor. You are called upon only to prepare dinners, wash dishes, and clean the house and its litter boxes, carpets and dust-prone surfaces — anything, everything, all the time. Otherwise, you remain unheard and unseen.

It is established early on by the American couple that you are to work 40 hours a week, collecting $200 a month. However, it soon becomes clear that you are property, never to leave the house or to speak with anyone outside of it. Because your parents, who are living with another family in another town, will be deported. Because you will go to jail. Because you will be killed.

When you are too tired to carry out your daily workload, you are beaten. When you are hungry, you scavenge through the garbage like an animal. When you are scared, you cry to no one.

In this way, a decade passes. You are 20 years old — an age when many women attend college, contemplate marriage or embark on a career — and the dishes that have been washed, the meals prepared, and the beatings administered to you now number in the thousands. You haven’t been paid for a single day’s work and have largely given up hope that the next-door neighbors — whom through cracked windows and open doorways you’ve tried to communicate with using what little English you know — will ever bother themselves with your nameless plight. They regard you with a numbness you recognize because it is a numbness you feel, too. It is easier for both of you to look away. You are a slave in America, existing solely in your capacity to work, until one day your dreams of escape come to pass.

The American couple has left for the afternoon. You have stolen a key, maybe. Perhaps you have shattered locks on the cellar door with a hammer pilfered from the garage. Now you are out of the house and running as fast as you can in the open air, your heart nearer to bursting with each footfall. Eventually you make contact with the person who winds up saving you, even though you’ve never met them before. In fact, you are meeting this person for the first time, here, by the side of the road, their car pulled over with the hazards blinking; or inside a gas station, begging the attendant for help; or on a sidewalk near your neighborhood, rescued by someone who finally bothered to notice you.

Your savior asks you a question. It is one you have almost forgotten the answer to.

Clearing your throat, you reply, “Lucy.”

That a version of the above story occurs in America — much less Louisville, Ky. — might register as something of a shock. What happened to Lucy, you might be thinking, is something that could never happen here, in a free and democratic society like ours. We’ve outlawed slavery. We’ve got the Civil Rights Act, the Bill of Rights, so many rights we can’t even name them all. We are, after all, America, so surely this must be an isolated incident in our supposedly sleepy River City. Besides, human trafficking only happens in foreign countries, or in action movies starring Liam Neeson.

And yet it happens.

“If you were to get a map of Metro Louisville and place a red dot on every home or automobile where an instance of human trafficking has occurred, it’d freak you out,” says Marissa Castellanos, a caseworker for Catholic Charities of Louisville, the organization that helped Lucy. In recounting the stories of Lucy — whose real name is being withheld to protect her identity — and other victims of human trafficking, Castellanos refrains from providing too much detail for fear of violating confidentiality and putting her clients in danger.

“It’s modern-day slavery,” says Castellanos, director of the nonprofit’s Rescue & Restore Victims of Human Trafficking Program. “It’s happening everywhere and nobody knows about it.”

Put another way, the crime of human trafficking is labor or services obtained via force, fraud or coercion that deprives individuals of their rights and abilities to live a normal, meaningful life. Put yet another another way, it’s the denial of choice, self-determination and personal liberty.

Assuming you’re aware that human trafficking exists, it’s probable that you’ve confused it with another crime, human smuggling, which concerns itself only with the transportation of trafficked individuals and not the long-term exploitation perpetrated by traffickers. The modes of trafficking can vary wildly, ranging from sex work (i.e., stripping or prostitution) to domestic services, like painting and basic carpentry, to large-scale operations that utilize sweatshops or cheap manual labor on horse farms. This can make an act of trafficking quite difficult to spot, as “legitimate” employees in these fields often remain at the margins of contemporary society anyway. And when the victim is either employed as a prostitute, an undocumented illegal alien, or both, law enforcement often winds up arresting them, the victim, while ignoring the larger threat of trafficking altogether.

According to a Central Intelligence Agency estimate, some 50,000 individuals are trafficked in the United States annually — individuals that in many ways resemble Lucy. Globally, there are 2-4 million cases each year, second only to drug trafficking in terms of scope. Victims hail from all over the world: Russia, Mexico, Egypt, the Philippines, etc. They owe no allegiance to any particular nation except for the personal fiefdom of the trafficker. Generally, victims who are impoverished women and children (comprising 80 and 50 percent of all cases, respectively) stand a much higher chance of falling into sex work than their male counterparts. However, not all victims are immigrants: Roughly one-quarter of trafficking victims in the United States are natural-born citizens, like the three daughters — ages 6 through 16 — of a central Kentucky family whom Castellanos told me about.

“They were basically prostituted around to neighbors so the family could pay their rent and utility bills,” she says. “It was finally discovered when the youngest girl told her school teacher what was going on.”

Victims can be held captive anywhere from a few weeks to several years, and the psychological damage they endure so impairs normal cognitive functioning that they often wind up rationalizing the situation to make it less harrowing, thinking they are helping their families by continuing to submit or even siding with their captors. In the latter case, when confronted with the possibility of escape via social workers, some victims choose the devil they know over the one they don’t. There are even instances of police showing up at a scene where trafficking is taking place, but because the victims are walled behind a language barrier, the cops wind up taking the word of the trafficker, who conveniently serves as the “interpreter.”

In Kentucky, dozens (and potentially upwards of hundreds) of cases are reported to social-service agencies each year. But given the amorphous nature of the crime — traffickers rarely fit a common profile; victims are too intimidated and/or isolated to seek help; the ability of law enforcement to detect signs of trafficked exploitation, though improving, lags behind the need — a great many more Lucys remain unreported, unseen and unheard.

Like in 2004: The Courier-Journal published a six-page feature chronicling 127 cases of prostitution at local “massage” parlors over several years, including stings conducted by the Louisville Metro Police Department, which prompted many so-called parlors to shutter their doors. But nowhere in their reportage does the crime of human trafficking rear its head, as prosecutors mainly focused on charging the parlor proprietors and their “employees” with illegal solicitation of sex, if not ultimately dismissing many of the cases or accepting guilty pleas and reducing the charges to disorderly conduct.

In 2000, Congress enacted the Trafficking in Victims Protection Act, making human trafficking a federal crime. In 2007, Kentucky passed its own anti-human trafficking legislation, making the crime a felony under state statute as well. Further demonstrating how difficult it is to successfully identify and prosecute traffickers is the fact that despite these laws, only one case of human trafficking has made its way to Kentucky’s courts.

In 2007, an officer of the Lexington Police Department responded to a call of a naked, screaming woman terrorizing a downtown gas station. The hysterical woman had just fled the nearby Catalina Motel, where officers discovered several women bound to their beds by chains. The accused trafficker, Calvin “Slim” Walker, was charged with two counts of promoting human trafficking, but the case was dismissed in May 2008 when one victim partially recanted her story, and another simply disappeared.

It’s a typical scenario: Assuming police actually inform prosecutors that a case deals with human trafficking, victims often either identify with their captors out of fear, still believing that they or their family will be harmed in the process and so refuse to provide testimony, or they simply never make it to the witness stand.

“I have to give credit to the officer on the scene who researched the law and found evidence of trafficking,” says Castellanos. “The state law was still so new, but had there not been visible chains then it’s very likely that the women would’ve been charged with prostitution.”

Compounding the problem of detection is the inexperience of local law enforcement with the particulars of this crime.

That being said, Louisville Metro Police officials expect all officers to be trained in this capacity for the first time in the department’s history by the end of 2010.

“Each officer has to take 40 hours of department-mandated training every year. Human trafficking training will, as I understand it, be incorporated,” says Lt. Mike Sullivan of the LMPD’s Criminal Enterprise Investigations Unit.

When asked whether the department might have overlooked human trafficking cases in the past, Sullivan says, “There’ve been a couple of prostitution cases where, looking back on how everything was handled, we were probably dealing with a human trafficking victim and just didn’t know it.”

Sullivan also says that cultural and language barriers impede the ability of the LMPD to contact more victims, “especially if they’re from another country where the local law enforcement is something to be afraid of and not a resource to turn to.”

In the past two years, Sullivan says the force has looked into four complaints of human trafficking involving forced prostitution and restaurant labor, yet, true to form, the cases never materialized because, in Sullivan’s estimation, the victims are an extremely transient population.

“The victim is here today,” he says, “and then gone tomorrow.”

The Internet is a big place. Most of its hallways are brightly lit corridors through which all manner of data, financial and other time-wasting transactions take place. But if you spend enough time there, you can find alleyways leading to darker passageways. One is USASexguide.com, which serves as a kind of watering hole for customers seeking advice on, among other things, where to get the best handjob, affordability of rates and how to set up trysts with local prostitutes, who — true to trafficking form — appear to move around the country along an underground circuit. The site’s forums break down to localities, including Louisville Metro, where some Johns pose as out-of-town businessmen, trade tips on which massage parlors offer the best services and, because this is the Internet, write “reviews” of prostitutes.

Here’s an excerpt from one such review, courtesy of USASexguide user (and self-described gentleman) Iluvdaty69:

She is slender, brunette, well rounded, and very sexual. Her pictures show bruises on her ass. She loves to be spanked hard. She does most anything but greek. I visited her twice. The second time she brought a friend named Candy. Not the one who posts pictures called Candi. Her rates are dead on, and the 3 sum was awesome.

And here’s one from Gumby975:

I asked her to do a little riding and she complained about dancing to (sic) much last night and being sore now. The BJ was only a few minutes as she continued to complain of a toothache. If your (sic) unable to do the job take the damn night off! Like I said right about 15 minutes into it her driver calls to check and see if everything is ok. I’m used to this call at the beginning of the session to say all is good. But again 15 minutes later! Complaining the whole time she finally just assumes the handshake and is out the door…

Another poster laments that cameras have been installed in one of his favorite venues, which made the girl more nervous than usual and, therefore, made the atmosphere less-than romantic. Most employ a kind of coded language, to avoid incrimination, which seems pointless given Iluvdaty69’s critique.

Were they to consider that soliciting sex from an “escort” might very well result in exploiting a victim of human trafficking — thereby committing an act of rape — then perhaps the Iluvdaty69s and Gumby975s of the net would think twice about paying for sex. However, as a recent BBC investigation revealed, the popularity of prostitute-laden bachelor parties in the United Kingdom has caused a skyrocketing influx of sex trafficking. When confronted by the implications of their pleasure-filled binges, the partygoers shrugged off their role as a customer as inevitable, more or less suggesting that somebody’s going to exploit them anyway, so why not enjoy it?

In a consumer culture where exploitation is the norm, whether you’re purchasing a child for sex or a hoodie from Wal-Mart made by a child, cognitive dissonance isn’t too far behind. Along these lines, an undercurrent of paranoia is exhibited in the posts, as if they are aware that what they’re doing is illegal. The hierarchy of senior posters does its best to squash newbies to the site out of fear that they may be undercover police officers.

Castellanos says the net is a hotbed for this kind of activity, and that the anonymity afforded by such forums only fuels the problem.

Aside from raunchy Internet forums, seemingly innocuous ads placed in newspapers and magazines for escort services — usually the ones that simply feature a woman’s name and a number — are also portals into the world of sex trafficking. Some posters even mentioned ads in LEO by name, referring would-be Johns to illicit services that aren’t spelled out in print. In 2008, LEO stopped running ads that were overtly peddling escort services, although succinct ads touting “ultimate relaxation” and other “therapeutic bodywork” remain.

Unlike the above examples, one of the prime locations for sex trafficking doesn’t need any publicity. Along busy interstate thoroughfares like I-65, I-64 and I-71 there are numerous truck stops and diesel filling stations where a brief, coded communiqué over the CB radio is all that’s needed to set up a meeting between the trucker and a potentially underage girl. In less than 30 minutes, the deed is done. The trucker fills up his tank and goes on his way, but the girl never does, for the next customer is always en route.

But how big is the problem here?

“We just don’t know,” says T.K. Logan, a behavioral sciences professor at the University of Kentucky whose 2007 study on human trafficking is the only of its kind to examine the problem within the commonwealth. “We really don’t know any more today than we did when I first did the study.”

The study included 140 individual surveys of rape-crisis counselors (who are most likely to encounter human trafficking victims first-hand), social outreach workers and law enforcement officials. Although her study documented that in 2007 there were at least 69 reported instances of trafficking, Logan believes that number is likely much larger.

“The 69 cases were cases that were spontaneously mentioned by the respondents and were not duplicated,” says Logan, meaning those cases did not appear to overlap with other stories. However, Logan says there are “hundreds and hundreds more” instances that haven’t been checked for duplication, so that number “is just the tip of an iceberg.”

The final report included four recommendations: increase resources and support for rape-crisis centers and at-risk shelters and agencies, raise awareness about human trafficking among the general population, build on the 2007 anti-human trafficking law, and conduct further research.

“It’s about time we did another study,” she says. “One of the things people say to me is we don’t know what’s happening with juvenile trafficking, specifically kids trafficked within America and not across international borders. Are kids being charged with these crimes? Are they ignored? We don’t know.”

Even though Logan suggests the state legislature should work toward increasing funding for anti-trafficking programs through the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, which currently oversees funding for anti-human trafficking programs, the political realities of a projected $1.5 billion budgetary shortfall do not bode well for any money being appropriated toward this (or any other) end in the foreseeable future.

“Unfortunately, many of these agencies are having to take cuts,” says state Sen. David Boswell, D-8, who introduced the 2007 Kentucky anti-trafficking bill. “Many agencies are having to take between 6 and 12 percent cuts, which includes the Cabinet for Health and Family Services. It costs money to administer these programs, so when you have that kind of a shortfall it’s the kind of program that is likely to be cut first.”

Boswell first learned about human trafficking when members of the Catholic Ursuline convent located in his district returned from performing missionary work in Central and South America. “It’s a crime against humanity,” says Boswell, “and it’s a crime whether you’re in China or Louisville, Kentucky.”

A key provision that was cut from the 2007 bill — funding for victim’s counseling services — has yet to be implemented for obvious fiscal reasons. “The counseling part of the provision is a key component,” says Boswell. “The first thing you want to do is catch the criminal,” which current legislation intends to do by making the crime a class-C felony under state law.

“The next is to take care of the individual. Hopefully, when the economy improves, we’ll be able to capture some revenue and put it into the counseling initiatives,” says Boswell. “Basically, it is worse than anyone can imagine, but there’s no money to even begin correcting it. What’s more, when you have the tremendous immigration problem that we have in this country, both legally and illegally, it’s hard to determine the scope.”

Coupled with anti-immigrant sentiment routinely expressed by the mass media and several Republican presidential candidates during the 2008 primaries, victims of human trafficking are often left with little recourse in a country that appears to care little for their needs and doesn’t want them here in the first place.

Continuing this line of thought a step further, one respondent in Logan’s report provides this assessment: “There’s an overall issue of the media perpetuating the belief that men are superior to women. You always hear about how women are supposed to look and act. The media does a huge disservice to women of all kinds and of all colors.” Pair that ethos with the patriarchal climates of most countries, and you’ve got an environment where trafficking not only exists, but thrives.

Lucy, if you remember, was rescued from her captors by a third party who miraculously took notice and became part of her story. According to Castellanos, that’s the primary means by which trafficked victims are emancipated. Often, the rescuers in these situations don’t have a badge, a gun or professional training. They are normal, everyday people who happen to stumble upon, “Blue Velvet”-like, a netherworld thriving in their own backyard. All it takes is a set of functioning eyes that are open and willing to look.

Victims’ advocates urge the public to look for warning signs that human trafficking might be occurring. In many instances, a common sign is the presence of personal effects and toiletry items scattered throughout the victim’s place of employment. Ask yourself, why does my server need to wash her hair at work? Of course the more obvious signs are at massage parlors, where egg timers — to measure the time of each liaison — and condoms are dead giveaways. (Chances are if you have to ask yourself such questions at a seedy massage parlor, you probably are getting more than a massage.)

Assuming in the course of your life you actually have a face-to-face encounter with a Lucy, what then?

Despite the lack of proper funding, there are numerous agencies to turn to — one being Catholic Charities of Louisville.

Slavery has existed since the dawn of time — from the Greeks to the Romans, from medieval empires to imperialist ones — and it’s prevalence in modern-day America is tolerated by those who know it exists. But the fact remains: Most people don’t know that in the kitchen of every restaurant, in the bowels of every garment factory or in the massage rooms of a seedy health spas, there could always be a Lucy waiting for you to ask the right question.


If you suspect someone might be the victim of human trafficking, call 1-888-373-7888 to reach the National Human Trafficking Resources Hotline. Funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the 24-hour hotline forwards tips to law enforcement agencies, refers victims to legal and psychological services, and provides general information about trafficking.