Attorney General Daniel Cameron announced an initiative that aims to combat human trafficking in Kentucky by targeting “illicit massage businesses.”
The Human Trafficking Outreach Prevention and Education, or HOPE, initiative would mobilize landlords and communities to identify and close businesses that Cameron says “masquerade as licensed, reputable massage businesses,” but operate as sources of human trafficking of women and children by facilitating commercial sex services.
“What we find is that they specialize in exploitation of young women and are just the latest iteration of organized crime,” Cameron said in a press conference on Wednesday.
“There are a number of legitimate massage businesses in Kentucky that provide massage services, and we are not casting aspersions on any of these entities. We want them to know our efforts are focused on the bad actors in the industry.”
Cameron is one of 12 Republicans running for governor this year.
Cameron pointed to investigations carried out in 2021 by the Office of Trafficking and Abuse Prevention and Prosecution in collaboration with the Kentucky state police, the Lexington Police Department, the Pulaski County Sheriff’s Office, the FBI, Homeland Security Investigations and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
In July 2021, three businesses in Kentucky were under investigation after law enforcement was tipped off that the businesses were providing illegal human trafficking and other crimes. Those businesses were located in Somerset, Lexington, and Elizabethtown.
Other crimes included illegal immigration, promoting prostitution, providing sexual services for compensation and operating without a license.
Heather Wagers, director of the attorney general’s trafficking prevention office, said the initiative was initially launched in Bullitt, Fayette, Laurel and Hardin counties. Law enforcement identified 12 illicit massage businesses and eight were shuttered.
“It’s happening across the country. They dot the sides of highways, and are tucked in strip malls and behind darkened windows on storefronts across the country, and Kentucky is no exception,” Wager said.
Jaime Thompson, program director at People Against Trafficking Humans Coalition of Kentucky, called the effort a step forward, but said law enforcement needs to improve their tactics.
“We still do not value the victims or survivors in the way that law enforcement should approach it with a trauma-informed and sensitive approach. When you have these big raids and publicly posting pet names and pictures, it’s because some of them could be victims themselves. That’s why landlords are being involved in this because they are essential to breaking this cycle,” she said.
Thompson said victims are just going to be put elsewhere if there aren’t effective rehabilitation measures..
“What happens after the raid? There’s a reason we call it an underground labor industry because they bring huge revenues, and that is obviously the traffickers and buyers. It is a very complicated system to disrupt and it could just pop up elsewhere at another illicit business,” she said.
According to a 2021 report on human trafficking by the state’s Cabinet for Health and Family Services, the state received 312 reports of alleged human trafficking involving 379 alleged child victims.
“This is a 50% increase in reports from the 2020 to 2021 reporting year, and almost 61% increase in the number of victims,” the report stated.
The attorney General’s office lists the following red flags to watch for illicit massage businesses which “may appear to be licensed spa services and conceal that their primary business is sex and labor trafficking.”
- The permit or license held by the business is for an activity different from the actual business.
- They have a mostly male clientele.
- Business prices are below-market to incentivize larger tips to employees.
- The location may have a guarded entrance.
- Businesses may have cameras inside and outside and positioned to see entrants rather than for security purposes.
- The business operates at unusual hours (late at night) compared to nearby businesses.
- The business storefront is curtained or blocked by dark-tinted windows to obstruct the view inside.
- The location is kept locked and is opened only when customers are at the door.
- Employees may be transported to work as a group or may live at the location.
Kentucky has a state association of 15 Children’s Advocacy Centers. These centers help children who are victims of sexual abuse, physical abuse and human trafficking.
National Human Trafficking Hotline is 1-888-373-7888. Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services Hotline: 1-877-KY-SAFE1 (597-2331
To report suspected child abuse or neglect to the Family and Children’s Place: 1-800-752-6200 (Kentucky)
Divya Karthikeyan is the Capitol Reporter at Kentucky Public Radio. Originally from Chennai, India, she’s reported for national and international outlets on politics, climate change, gender and caste inequality in India. She started out in the US as a graduate student at NYU’s Arthur .L. Carter Journalism Institute and interned at The New Republic and Gotham Gazette.