Special Report: Human Trafficking in Kentucky

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BOWLING GREEN, Ky. (WBKO) -- Human trafficking is a crime that's often hidden from the public eye, yet it's happening right here in Kentucky.

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A state agency says child protection officials investigated 20 allegations of human trafficking in the state during a four-month period last year.

Now, officials are hoping increased education will stop the crime and help the victims.

"Most the time when you think of human trafficking you think of what you see on TV or in the movies -- that they've grabbed a group of people and taken them to some other place," said Officer Ronnie Ward of the Bowling Green Police Department.

Human trafficking is happening right here in Bowling Green.

"They know it's happening, but they don't want to. It's one of those things, like don't ask, don't tell. I mean, no one really wants to know the grimy sh*t that happens underneath, the underbelly of the streets," said Caleb Thomas, a Bowling Green resident.

It might not be exactly what you think.

"Whether it's a sex crime or labor-related, it really doesn't make any difference, but they're doing it against their will," Ward said.

"You also have domestic minors who are trafficked by their parents, by family friends," Terryn Honeycutt Varney from Hope Harbor.

Bowling Green recently had its first conviction.

"A family member was using a minor in sexual activity that did result in three separate 20 year prison sentences for the defendants that participated in that situation," said Chris Cohron, the Commonwealth's Attorney for Warren County.

Hope Harbor sees several cases each year.

"We have a couple of cases that we have worked in the past, where we have seen it as human trafficking and under the law it could have been charged that way, but unfortunately because of lack of education or lack of awareness, it wasn't convicted or tried as human trafficking," Varney said.

That's why there's been a recent push to educate people on what the crime really is.

"Essentially you can look at it as kid-napping or people wouldn't think that it would be human trafficking. We look at all instances of the crime and what exactly is happening, what's taken place, what this victim's been through. And if human trafficking fits, we obviously want to charge that," Ward said.

The Human Trafficking Victims Rights Act passed in Kentucky last March.

The new law provides more protection of sexually-exploited children by increasing penalties and prison sentences for those who commit the crime.

"What I think the most important result from House Bill 3 is going to be, is educating people across the system to go to that second level in looking at these cases," Cohron said.

Victims themselves often don't realize they are being trafficked.

"They're manipulated into thinking that, 'Oh, well, I'm doing this because I'm helping out my boyfriend.' And they think they're having sex with these people to get money for their boyfriend because their boyfriend cares for them. So they don't see themselves as victims, they see themselves as willing participants," Varney said. "The perpetrators trying to manipulate them into thinking, 'You have no other options, no one's going to think that you are a victim, they're going to the think that you wanted to do this.' So there's so much shame, there's so much stigma placed onto these people."

That's where people like you can help by watching for the signs.

"Bruises that maybe can't be explained easily, always being around people who seem controlling of them, not being able to know where they are," Varney said.

Police ask you to call if something doesn't seem quite right to protect those who can't protect themselves.

"There's been so many things that because of education, we've been able to change, and human trafficking is going to be no different. The more we educate, the more we push for education and awareness, the more we're going to be able to help people," Varney said.

The National Human Trafficking Resource Center received 55% more calls last year than in 2012.

If you suspect trafficking in your area, you can call 1-888-373-7888.

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