NEW ALBANY — A survey of 132 young people has revealed a high prevalence of sex trafficking in Louisville and Southern Indiana.
During the Second Annual Indiana Human Trafficking Awareness Conference at Indiana University Southeast, Jen Middleton, a professor at the University of Louisville, revealed statistics gathered from a 2016 Youth Experiences Survey conducted last October.
Respondents ranged from 12 to 25 years old, each of whom were accessing homeless services at the time of the anonymous, 60-question survey.
Over 40 percent of those surveyed indicated that they were victims of sex trafficking, a rate higher than similar surveys conducted elsewhere in the country.
"We definitely think our rate was a little bit higher in part because we asked the questions anonymously versus having them report and be identified to a person through an interview process," Middleton said. "That is different than other studies. It is still higher than the other YES that was done anonymously in Arizona, which had a 25 percent to 33 percent rate."
Aside from the anonymity, Middleton said a number of factors have led to high levels of sex trafficking in the area.
"In Kentucky, we have the highest homelessness rate for youth who are in school in the nation," Middleton said. "Homeless and runaway youth who are out there, who don't have a strong connection with family, who are isolated and in need of a place for shelter or basic needs are more likely to be victimized for trafficking."
According to Middleton, factors like the opioid epidemic that continues to ravage the region have also created opportunities for sex traffickers.
"A lot of times, someone who is in a situation where they are dependent on drugs, their dependency could be used by a trafficker or someone else to exploit them and engage them in these types of activities against their will," Middleton said. "Once someone gets [the victim] into a trafficking situation, someone could use drugs to then make [the victim] more dependent on them as their trafficker and then continue to exploit them."
Middleton also pointed to the area being a major thoroughfare for travel in the country as a potential cause for the high number of victims.
"From a geographical standpoint, we have several major highways that run through our parts of the state coming up through Louisville," Middleton said. "We know from cases that have been identified and prosecuted that there are some routes coming up from Nashville and Atlanta all the way up to Michigan as well as Chicago. There are major routes there, similar to drug trafficking routes. Those routes are also available and being used by traffickers of children and people."
Middleton hopes that by making the community aware of the staggering findings, more steps will be taken to address the problem more aggressively.
"I think that is a call to action to pay attention and provide better support and services," Middleton said. "This is an indicator that it's happening in our community and that it's happening at a significant rate. That could also be used to raise community awareness and education about sex trafficking and human trafficking. There is a lot we can do as a community to not only intervene and combat it, but to prevent it."