Ahead of eclipse, warnings about potential human trafficking

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HOPKINSVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Hotels in Hopkinsville are continuing to fill up with folks eager to visit the city for a glimpse of this summer's Great American Eclipse, but those same hotels also have the potential to be ground zero for another aspect of eclipse-watching.

"A lot of human trafficking will occur with hotels, and the human traffickers will stay in hotels," observed Sabrina Bishop, whose organization recently hosted two training sessions in Hopkinsville to help prevent those efforts during the eclipse.

Bishop is coordinator of the Pennyrile Allied Community Services/Community Collaboration for Children Pennyrile Regional Networks, and, as such, her job is to train and educate the community about child abuse and how to prevent it.

Her recent training sessions provided information to help people recognize the signs of human trafficking and learn how to report it, and those attending received materials to post at their businesses and other locations in the city.

The program's featured guests, human trafficking survivor Summer Dickerson and Amy Leenerts, founder of an organization to prevent sex crimes, both have research indicating that human trafficking will be an issue during the eclipse.

Leenerts investigated Backpage, a website that Bishop described as "all of the bad things that happen on social media," prostitution, drugs and human trafficking, for example. Traffic on the site skyrockets during large events.

"Basically, it's a business so they go wherever these large numbers are," said Bishop, noting that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration now predicts 300,000 to 500,000 people in Hopkinsville for the Aug. 21 eclipse.

Bishop urges people to be aware of their surroundings with so many people in the city, pay attention to your gut feelings and if something doesn't look right, report it. Among the signs: one man with a large number of girls, multiple guests in a hotel room, unsupervised children, a minor with multiple cell phones, a man who always speaks for the women he is with, or poker chips passing hands.

Human traffickers use them in place of money, according to Bishop.

She said PACS has also purchased window decals and very large postcards and is asking businesses, churches and others to post them on their buildings.

The postcards and decals include the logo for Leenerts' Free2Hope organization, which can link people to resources for help with human trafficking. They also include the national hotline for reporting human trafficking: 1-888-373-7888.

"We're asking businesses to put this up so that, during the eclipse, human traffickers will know that we know and that we are not afraid to keep our town safe," Bishop explained.

The agency also has hand-outs for hotel staff in the community.

Some 60 people attended the two sessions on human trafficking, which took place on June 20 at St. John United Methodist Church in Hopkinsville.

Law enforcement, church affiliates, foster parents, juvenile justice representatives, court-designated workers and staff from the Department of Community-Based Services were among the participants.

Bishop said there will be continue to be sessions on human trafficking in the future, including another one next March in Hopkinsville.

The industry in Kentucky is getting a lot bigger, she noted.

She said a conversation with Dickerson led to the recent training sessions.

"I was talking to her (about the eclipse) and she said, 'What are they going to do about human trafficking?'" Bishop recalled. "I had not even considered that was going to take place during this time."

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Information from: Kentucky New Era, http://www.kentuckynewera.com

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