Results of UofL child trafficking study reveal opportunities for education, training and policy development

Jennifer Middleton, principal investigator for Project PIVOT and associate professor, UofL Kent School of Social Work
Jennifer Middleton, principal investigator for Project PIVOT and associate professor, UofL Kent School of Social Work

Findings of the two-year University of Louisville Human Trafficking Research Initiative’s Project PIVOT: Prevention and Intervention for Victims of Trafficking, include both practice and policy recommendations to address child trafficking in Kentucky.

The study, led by UofL researchers in collaboration with the Department for Community Based Services (DCBS) and partners at the Attorney General’s Office, is funded through a grant from the Kentucky Children’s Justice Act Task Force. The latest Project PIVOT recommendations build on a previous review of 698 reported cases of child trafficking over a 5-year period, between 2013 and 2018.

“We learned that the majority of child trafficking is happening at the hands of family members – people in our community that we know, live next to or interact with,” said Jennifer Middleton, principal investigator for Project PIVOT and associate professor, UofL Kent School of Social Work. “This has implications for how we educate our communities about child trafficking, as well as how we prepare child welfare workers and first responders to identify and respond to potential child victims.” 

Researchers interviewed child welfare leaders across the United States to learn more about screening tools used to recognize potential child trafficking victims. The interviews revealed that 24 states have screening protocols, and only two screening tools – the Human Trafficking Screening Tool (HTST) and the Commercial Sexual Exploitation Identification Tool (CSE-IT) – were found to be validated and successfully utilized across multiple states.

In addition, the research team reviewed the Project PIVOT findings with key leaders, advocates and investigators on the Statewide Human Trafficking Task Force, who generated recommendations for DCBS.

The study also pointed to the following policy recommendations:

  • Develop regional anti-trafficking champions: The lack of training and resources in rural communities may serve as a potential risk factor or predictor of family-controlled trafficking, making it imperative to build capacity in rural communities for specialized training and coordinated investigations among multidisciplinary teams.
  • Tap into existing child advocacy centers as anti-trafficking resources: Findings indicate an increased likelihood of child trafficking cases being confirmed if a forensic interview is conducted at a child advocacy center. The study’s authors recommend regional consultants be partnered with and perhaps housed within regional child advocacy centers.
  • Hold family members accountable: This study revealed that significantly more cases with non-relative perpetrators (39.6%) had a case outcome of substantiation or founding when compared to cases with family member perpetrators (21.1%). Investigators, advocates and others reported concerns that family members who were traffickers may be less likely to be charged or may receive a reduced charge or finding, such as child sexual abuse.

“Identification of the commercial aspect of the sexual exploitation can allow law enforcement to broaden the scope of the investigation to potentially include buyers of commercial sex,” said Middleton, who also serves as director of the UofL Human Trafficking Research Initiative. “Until more buyers of commercial sex are arrested and charged with criminal offenses, the demand for commercial sex with children will continue unabated.”

New grant to help Kentucky address study findings

A new $1 million federal grant from the U.S. Department of Justice will help the state respond to key findings of Project PIVOT.

Specifically, the funding will address the project’s following recommendations: the creation of the Department for Community Based Services advisory council; the launch of a human trafficking and child labor screening tool to identify high-risk children; and the hiring of a full-time child protection specialist.

“I have always made seeking justice for victims and fighting human trafficking part of my core mission,” Governor Andy Beshear said. “The resources made possible through this grant will allow my administration to address research findings that will help us to better fight this scourge of human trafficking and save lives. I would like to thank Dr. Middleton and her team for their hard work in this crucial area.”

Donna Pollard, Community Enrichment Officer, Survivors’ Corner, says conducting this research, protecting vulnerable youth and advocating for survivors is critical.

“As a survivor of sexual exploitation, I know firsthand how critical the research conducted under Project PIVOT is for protecting those vulnerable to human trafficking,” Pollard said. “Knowledge is power in terms of both prevention and empowerment of survivors so they can reframe their pain into purpose and break exploitive cycles in their families.”

State working to combat human trafficking

In 2020, Kentucky was one of only four states to receive a $1 million grant related to human trafficking from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office for Victims of Crime.

With grant funding, DCBS will engage with child-serving agencies in Kentucky to develop and implement an advisory council on human trafficking and child labor prevention and awareness. The advisory council will work to identify a human trafficking and child labor screening tool, funded by this grant, which will be used to reveal victimization for both sex and labor trafficking of children and youth.

DCBS has a dedicated specialist whose responsibilities include consultations on assessments and trainings, but that the agency is considering the creation of a full-time child trafficking protection specialist position that could provide training and case consultation to staff throughout the state.

The department also is implementing evidence-based, trauma-informed training for child welfare staff, leadership, foster parents and providers across the state.

“We are so pleased the Project PIVOT results will help the state enhance its efforts in combating child trafficking as we work alongside survivors – our most important advisors and warriors in this fight against human trafficking” Middleton said. “I continue to pledge my support and resources of the UofL Human Trafficking Research Initiative to DCBS, the Governor’s Office, and survivors as we continue this fight against child trafficking in Kentucky.”

Source: Results of UofL child trafficking study reveal opportunities for education, training and policy development (UofL News, May 21, 2021)