Human Trafficking Awareness Conference to highlight progress, challenges

12th April 2017

By Steven Krolak

(NEW ALBANY, Ind.)— Last year, human trafficking made more money than Google, Nike and Starbucks combined.

This statistic, from the website of Free2Hope, a Louisville organization that educates and equips the general public to combat trafficking, brings home the scope and the urgency of a global problem with distinctly local impacts.

Amid growing concerns about the spread of this modern form of slavery, IU Southeast will convene the second annual Southern Indiana Human Trafficking Awareness Conference on Monday, April 17 in the Hoosier Rooms.

This large-scale event brings together victims, jurists, law enforcement, advocates and educators for an intensive analysis of the current state of the trafficking scene, an immersion in the realities of national, state and local efforts to combat it, and a frank and pragmatic discussion of real-world solutions to a criminal behavior that is affecting communities across the nation.

The keynote speaker will be Delaware County (Ind.) Circuit Judge, Hon. Kimberly S. Dowling. A concluding call to action will be delivered by Amy Leenerts, founder and driving force of Free2Hope.

The conference also provides an important networking opportunity for people working in this field. Representatives of nonprofits, community groups and victim’s organizations will be on hand with informational booths to distribute materials to conferees, the campus community and the general public.

An exploding problem

Human trafficking is a $150 billion industry enslaving over 20 million victims worldwide, according to the International Labor Organisation.

Modern slavery has different markets—prostitution, agriculture, manufacturing, service sector—and there are many ways for people to fall or be forced into it. Coercion is always at the core, and forced drug addiction is an important lever. Once a person is enslaved—and this holds true especially for young women—it becomes very difficult to identify, track and remove them from the psychological and physical grip of traffickers to whom they have either become loyal, or of whom they live in fear.

Kentuckiana is a thoroughfare between Chicago and points south, such as Nashville and Atlanta. It also hosts large sporting events such as the Kentucky Derby. For these reasons, trafficking is prevalent here.

Task forces involving local government and law enforcement, as well as victims groups and activists, are working to expose and break trafficking networks. The fight is not an easy one, for while there is some awareness of the likely times, places where trafficking-related criminal activity is underway, it is usually the slaves themselves who feel the force of the law. This makes it unlikely they will see freedom from slavery as a realistic option, especially when they have been damaged by their time in bondage.

“We see children who have extensive and long-term trauma as a result of being trafficked,” Dowling said.

Burns, cuts and scars are the more visible signs of this trauma, according to Dowling, while hopelessness, depression, panic attacks and substance abuse disorders may lie just beneath the surface.

Changing the system

The traditional approach is entrenched, but there are signs it may be changing.

Dowling is one of those ushering in a new way of treating individuals, especially young girls, victimized by trafficking.

“It doesn’t make sense to criminalize these children,” Dowling said. “They are victims and need to be provided services.”

Dowling has worked to help her county join the grant-funded Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative (JDAI), a program that reduces reliance on confinement of court-involved youth that is making a difference in 300 counties nationwide.

She has also worked with the county’s Youth Opportunity Center (YOC), a noted outpatient and residential treatment facility, to include programming around trafficking. As a result, the YOC is building a second campus devoted to trafficked girls. The first of its kind in Indiana, the center will house and treat 16-20 girls at any one time.

At a higher level, Dowling works with juvenile judges and the Indiana Supreme Court to help draft screening tools, to conduct trainings across the state to educate workers in the juvenile system about trafficking and how it can be addressed. She has also had a hand in new legislation that seeks to decriminalize prostitution for minors across Indiana. In 2016 she collaborated with Senator Tim Lanane to amend the Children In Need of Services statute to allow for trafficking.

“This enables us to get children into the juvenile system on the welfare side to provide them with services that they desperately need instead of treating them as criminals,” Dowling said.

She has also testified on behalf of state legislation that will exclude juvenile trafficking victims from prostitution convictions and treat them as children in need of services.

“I cannot help but feel a strong desire to fight this problem and help these children,” Dowling said.

Mobilizing the grassroots

At the local level, Amy Leenerts of Louisville is a one-woman show, working out of a small office in her church.

Through Free2Hope, Leenert engages individuals, businesses and groups to raise awareness of the presence of human trafficking in Louisville and Southern Indiana.

She does this primarily through speaking and distributing stickers and other informational aids.

“I speak everywhere, all the time – strip clubs, universities, kids groups, schools,” Leenerts said.

An abuse survivor herself, Leenerts convinces through the force of her story, her resilient personality, and with simple, direct materials that plant the seeds of awareness.

“Nobody has really done educational things geared to everyday people,” Leenert said. “There’s no way to put out enough information to fully inform anyone, but I’ve found that if you give people a little bit of information, and let them know how to get more, a lot of them will do it.”

Thanks to Leenerts and her small cadre of volunteers, Free2Hope stickers and small posters can be seen in the windows of over 500 local businesses. The Commonwealth of Kentucky has pledged to place stickers in the restrooms of all the rest areas along interstates throughout the state.

At the same time, Free2Hope seeks to break through to trafficked individuals themselves, to let them know that there are places for them to go and people for them to talk to.

Given the magnitude of the problem, what does success look like to Leenerts?

“It looks like a world that girls could grow up in where they are not victimized, not looked at the way they are, but where they’re allowed to become who they’re supposed to be,” Leenert said.

The Southern Indiana Human Trafficking Awareness Conference will be held on Monday, April 17, 2017 from 8:15 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. in the Hoosier Rooms at IU Southeast. For more information please visit the conference website or contact Karen Richie, Counselor and Care Manager, at 812-941-2060 or

The conference is sponsored by the Office of Administrative Affairs, Office of Personal Counseling Services, Mental Health and Wellness Seminar Series, The Biology Club at IU Southeast, the IU Office of Conference and Event Reservation Services, with additional sponsorship support from community partners including the Southern Indiana Human Trafficking Task Force, Family Time, Inc., Wellstone Regional Hospital, LifeSpring Health Systems, Harrison County Sheriff’s Office, Family and Children’s Place, and Prevent Child Abuse Floyd and Clark Counties (Indiana).

Homepage photo courtesy of Free2Hope.

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