Agencies partner to host awareness program

Photo by Alan Warren, Messenger-Inquirer | awarren@messenger-inquirer.com Terri Crowe, victim advocate at New Beginnings Sexual Assault Support Services, said the nonprofit serves human trafficking victims every year.

Most rural Kentuckians think human trafficking takes place only in huge metro areas, such as Chicago, New York City and Miami.

Not Owensboro, right?

Wrong.

"It is here in the 'runaways' we see on Facebook postings, who are prime targets for human traffickers," said Susan Montalvo-Gesser, an attorney and director of Catholic Charities for the Diocese of Owensboro. "It is in the children you encounter from out-of-state selling candy outside of Kroger. It is in the workers in our restaurants whose paychecks are withheld without recourse due to their legal status. It is in the corridor we are a part of for sex traffickers taking their victims up north."

Montalvo-Gesser is a featured speaker at an upcoming human trafficking seminar, which will take place from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sept. 6 at Blandford Hall on the Owensboro Community & Technical College campus, 4800 New Hartford Road.

The event is free to the public; however, space is limited to 300 guests. To pre-register, call 270-686-7747, extension 3001, or email receptionist@grdhd.org.

As of last week, continued education hours were pending.

The Kentucky Attorney General's office, Kentucky Department for Public Health, Green River District Health Department, New Beginnings, Catholic Charities, Lighthouse Counseling Services and CASA of Ohio Valley partnered to bring this training to Owensboro.

Human trafficking is a modern form of slavery.

According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, nearly 5,600 potential cases of sex trafficking and more than 1,000 cases of suspected forced labor were reported nationwide in 2016. Some cases had several victims.

The local program will teach attendees how to recognize human trafficking and how to work with survivors. Upcoming legislative bills and a law enforcement subcommittee that focuses on runaways and missing youth will be discussed as well.

Going forward, Montalvo-Gesser hopes the community starts a task force on human trafficking that brings together Owensboro, Henderson, Madisonville and Evansville.

"Here at our local Catholic Charities we can assist immigrant victims of human trafficking obtain lawful status," she said. "Immigrant victims are usually less likely to come forward because of their legal status, but there is hope for them in the form of a T-visa. I hope that if more victims knew there was this hope for a visa, it would encourage more of them to come forward and take the power away from

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their traffickers."

Terri Crowe, victim advocate at New Beginnings Sexual Assault Support Services, said the nonprofit serves human trafficking victims every year.

Here are the numbers for the past five years:

• 2018-2019 -- 24 victims

• 2017-2018 -- 9 victims

• 2016-2017 -- 19 victims

• 2015-2016 -- 29 victims

• 2014-2015 -- 21 victims

"People think of human trafficking only on the large scale in terms of large rings of people brought in from other countries," Crowe said. "Our human trafficking in our region is on a smaller scale, but occurs all the time. (For example), a parent loans a child to their drug dealer for sex in exchange for drugs."

During the past couple of years, Owensboro Police Department has received 19 calls related to human trafficking, including some from the national hotline, said Sgt. Brandon Sims. But no arrests made on that charge.

In 2016, wording in the state law regarding human trafficking changed, he said. Law enforcement started mandatory training and multiple conferences have presented information on the subject.

"Human trafficking is a fairly new thing as far as (the public) being aware," Sims said.

Renee Beasley Jones, 270-228-2835, rbeasleyjones@messenger-inquirer.com.

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