WKYT Investigates | Illicit industry, big business: Ky. officials crack down on human trafficking

Human trafficking occurs in all 120 Kentucky counties, state investigators said.
Illicit industry, big business: Ky. officials crack down on human trafficking
Published: Jun. 1, 2023 at 4:10 PM EDT
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LEXINGTON, Ky. (WKYT) - The building along North Limestone that is now home to the Natalie’s Sisters drop-in center was once a known drug house.

“People would come here for their fix,” said Jani Lewis, executive director of Natalie’s Sisters. “Now they come for a different kind of fix.”

As part of its mission, the nonprofit works closely with sex-trafficked and sexually-exploited women.

In many ways, Lewis says, they’re like family to the women. They celebrate new jobs, baby showers and birthdays with them. The center is listed as emergency contacts for many of them. And they also provide them with food, clothing and other resources.

“If you take care of material needs, then they can focus more on making a step and making a change,” Lewis said. “If they’re living day-to-day and just living in crisis and trauma and trying to get their next meal, they really can’t think past that.”

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Seventh Street, from what Lewis sees, is the center for much of the street activity in Lexington and for many of the women in prostitution with whom Natalie’s Sisters works.

But it is not just there.

Human trafficking, experts say, is an illicit industry that is big business across the Bluegrass.

“It’s hard to believe that this happens in the commonwealth,” said Heather Wagers, executive director of the attorney general’s Office of Trafficking and Abuse Prevention and Prosecution, “but it does.”

In fact, human trafficking and sexual exploitation are likely occurring right now in all 120 Kentucky counties, Wagers said.

“There’s a lot of talk about human trafficking around big events,” she said, “but it happens every day in small rural towns dotted along highways in strip malls across the state.”

Human trafficking exploits people - of any race, gender, age and background - often for sex.

And it is getting worse.

Investigators have tracked an explosion of illicit massage businesses, which disguise themselves as licensed spas or massage parlors but instead sell sex.

More than 11,000 IMBs are estimated to be operating across the country, according to analysts with The Network.

Kentucky has seen a 71% increase in illicit massage businesses since 2020, The Network reports. That is nearly double the national average of 38%.

“It takes more than just police officers and prosecutors,” Wagers said. “It really does take a community policing approach. So we need our neighbors to be part of that effort with us.”

The attorney general’s office and local law enforcement are using what they call the Human Trafficking Outreach Prevention and Education (HOPE) Initiative to fight back, trying to raise awareness about the signs of illicit massage businesses and working with landlords to get them out.

[MORE | Officials say Kentucky’s HOPE Initiative is already working]

Lexington Police would not answer WKYT’s questions about the prevalence of those businesses in the city or provide any additional information about arrests made, instead deferring to the attorney general’s office.

Back in January, the attorney general’s office reported that eight illicit massage businesses had been shut down in the state, including three in Lexington.

Asked for updated numbers, Wagers said it is fluid, because many businesses that shut down often try to re-open.

Human trafficking is a prevalent - but often misunderstood - problem, experts said.

While a kidnapping by strangers certainly can be one way that people are trafficked, experts explained, most of the time that is not the case. Many times victims are lured into it by someone they already know and trust.

[READ | Red flags: How to identify human trafficking and illicit massage businesses]

Since its inception in 2007, the National Human Trafficking Hotline has received 3,796 signals from Kentucky. That includes 353 signals in 2021 - with 133 of those from victims or survivors themselves.

Overall the hotline has identified 920 cases of human trafficking in Kentucky, with 2,238 victims involved in those cases.

  • 2021: 115 cases, 189 victims
  • 2020: 101 cases, 228 victims
  • 2019: 138 cases, 320 victims
  • 2018: 143 cases, 372 victims
  • 2017: 82 cases, 253 victims
  • 2016: 88 cases, 189 victims
  • 2015: 65 cases, 179 victims
  • 2007-2014: 188 cases, 508 victims

The vast majority of these are sex trafficking cases, although a handful do involve labor trafficking, both sex and labor trafficking, or an unknown/other type of trafficking.

Certain locations - like rest areas - are required by law to have human trafficking awareness posters.

The attorney general’s office has also worked with the General Assembly to change the legal definition of sex trafficking.

Officials say these efforts give more tools to investigators and open up more doors for organizations like Natalie’s Sisters that work to help survivors.

[READ | A sex trafficking survivor shares her story of getting out]

Inside the Natalie’s Sisters drop-in center, large letters adorn a chalkboard hanging on the wall.

Together they form a Bible verse that is central to the mission of the faith-based nonprofit: “For I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me a drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to me.”

Each year, more women continue to seek out the help - and hope - they can find in Natalie’s Sisters. At first they served a handful daily. Now that number is several dozen - between 30 and 50, Lewis said.

In total last year, Natalie’s Sisters served 500 women. Through 2023, the organization is already on pace to surpass that number.

“It’s great that they’re coming,” Lewis said. “We wish it didn’t exist. We’d like to work ourselves out of a job.”

Human trafficking comes with a high cost to the victims it exploits.

It changes the way women think, Lewis explained, making them fearful, guarded, numb to pain, hopelessness, homelessness, hunger, disappointment and trauma.

Many of the victims Natalie’s Sisters works with deal with mental illness, PTSD, addiction, alienation, loneliness, and serious medical and dental issues.


  • Emergency: 911
  • Kentucky HOPE Initiative hotline: 1-833-991-HOPE (4673)
  • National Human Trafficking Hotline: 1-888-373-7888
  • If you’re interested in helping Natalie’s Sisters, you can follow them on Facebook for their latest needs. The organization is often in need of breakfasts and lunches daily, items collected for snack bags and toiletry kits, and financial support. You can learn more about the specifics on their website.
  • You can find more resources here. (link to third story)