Safe Passage

For some, the word “quarantine” is inconvenient. Maybe boring. But for hundreds of youth 12 to 18, it’s horrifying.

They are victims of human trafficking. The place they call home is not safe.

The state famous for the Kentucky Derby, elite thoroughbreds and Kentucky Fried Chicken is also No. 1 in child abuse and neglect.  

That’s dangerous breeding ground for sex trafficking.

When COVID-19 closed schools, daycares and support agencies, many kids lost touch with teachers, counselors and friends who provide a safe haven.    

One inescapable fact of child trafficking is that 94% of trafficked children have a history in the child welfare system.    

Some children are trafficked by a family member, especially parents involved with opioids, who trade an hour or two with their child for drugs. “Romeos” lure young girls with promises of romance. Runaways with few options are vulnerable. So are those kids who are poor, abused and neglected.  

Cara Starns worked at Refuge for Women, an organization that works with women who have been trafficked. There she learned that there is no shelter for trafficked children in Kentucky. Ohio, Indiana and Tennessee have one to three homes dedicated to these children.  

Starns recently founded Safe Passage, a Southeast Christian Church supported outreach, which will include a free prevention program for youth, training for those in the community and a residential home in the Louisville area once fundraising is complete.   

“We know that adverse childhood experiences create a cycle of trauma,” Starns said. “If a boy or girl is traumatized in childhood and does not get help, they are more likely to experience abuse later in life. We want to stop that cycle.”

The entertainment industry makes it hard for teenagers to grasp the danger of exploitation.

“’Sugarbaby’ is a Netflix movie about a young college student who finds a sugar daddy to pay for her school. The problem is it’s a great movie that glamorizes being exploited,” Starns said. “Movies like that make it difficult for kids in the classroom to grasp the dangers out there, and realize that sex and sexting are dangerous.”   

Starns said the peak age for sexual exploitation is 12 years old.

Multiple challenges make caring for these children complicated. They experience complex trauma. They don’t fit in with kids who have not been trafficked. Counseling and care 24/7 is expensive, and it’s hard work. Progress often happens in baby steps.

“These kids have been betrayed so many times that they need a safe, controlled environment to heal,” Starns said.  

Safe Passage will provide a place where children and teenagers are safe, loved and championed.

Southeast member Rick Bayless is on the board of directors at Safe Passage.

He and his wife, Melinda, ran Cookson Hills, a residential program in Oklahoma for children who had been neglected, abandoned and abused. They also cared for about 40 foster children in their home.

“We saw many kids who suffered terrible abuse and exploitation,” Bayless said. “We have hope for these kids because we’ve seen them recover.”

About 36 years ago, a judge placed a teenager at Cookson Hills who had suffered horrific abuse in her incestuous family. When she ran away just three months later, the local sheriff called Bayless. She had assaulted and threatened to kill a police officer and was on her way to jail.

No one heard from her for 36 years until she contacted Rick to let him know she had turned her life around. Her three months with caregivers at Cookson Hills made a difference.  

“One of the reasons I think this kind of ministry is so vital is these kids deserve love and care,” he said. “It might be years before we see the fruit. God often calls us to the unseen. We trust God to do what He’s good at doing in the hearts of people and just keep loving them.”

For more information, visit www.safepassageky.org.