Creating a Safer Kentucky:
An Interview with the Kentucky Attorney General’s Office
Heather Wagers is the executive director of the Office of Trafficking and Abuse Prevention and Prosecution (TAPP) within the Kentucky Attorney General’s office. In this role, Heather and her team work closely with Attorney General Cameron to prevent and protect Kentucky’s children from becoming victims of child abuse. Wagers is dedicated to this mission. Her efforts focus on prevention, distributing resources to prosecutors, and assisting local and state partners in prosecution. Her team handles cases involving domestic violence victims and child witnesses. She also works to improve Kentucky’s Human Trafficking (HT) laws and increase penalties for offenders who possess child sexual abuse material for children under the age of 12.
Protecting Kentucky Children
Since day one, Attorney General Cameron has made ending child abuse in the Commonwealth a priority. Shortly after taking office, he welcomed child welfare stakeholders to a roundtable to discuss methods for combatting child abuse. During the meeting the idea to create a toolkit to equip prosecutors in handling child abuse cases arose. Following the meeting, Attorney General Cameron’s team worked with stakeholders to develop a toolkit.
The office also supports children by maintaining the Child Victims Trust Fund, which awards grants to support child abuse prevention programs and offset the cost of necessary medical exams.
Despite their tireless efforts, Wagers knows the office can’t combat child abuse alone.
“Every Kentucky adult has a role to play in protecting children from abuse. It is our job to know the signs, keep our eyes open, and report instances of abuse. Kentuckians are generous people who want to make a difference. We understand that some might not know how and that’s what we are here for – to help them know how they can make a difference in the life of a child.”
Knowing the signs of abuse and neglect is a good start. Wagers also encourages Kentuckians to learn how to respond when someone discloses abuse. She says, “don’t ask a bunch of questions, believe them if they come to you and disclose an instance of abuse. A person who makes a report doesn’t need to know everything about the incident. Otherwise, the child may have to tell the story repeatedly.”
If a child does disclose abuse, Wagers notes that it is important to report suspected child abuse or neglect. Be sure to share any signs of abuse you noticed or that were disclosed by the child. The TEN4 bruising rule is a helpful guide in these situations. She says, “as long as you are reporting in good faith, the proper authorities will look into it.”
Starting at the Local Level
Attorney General Cameron’s commitment to addressing child abuse and human trafficking in the Commonwealth is underscored by his involvement in communities across Kentucky. The office provides human trafficking education, and attends many MDT meetings.
Wagers has seen first-hand the value of attending MDT meetings. She says, “being a part of the MDT approach allows our office to have conversations with community leaders and learn about their issues directly.” Attending local MDT meetings allows the office to stand face to face with the struggles victims experience when seeking help. For many, transportation, work, and navigating exams and therapy can be challenging, which underscores the importance of community services like the Hope Heal Grow Mobile.
Wagers says, “Lotus can go into communities and remove many of these barriers. We are grateful for the work being done by Hope Heal Grow Mobile, and hope that centers across the Commonwealth will be able to provide similar relief in their communities. These services are instrumental in reaching victims, especially in rural Kentucky where fewer resources are available. They also demonstrate an investment in the community – if you can’t come to us, we’ll come to you.”
To further protect vulnerable Kentuckians, in 2021, Attorney General Cameron launched an human trafficking awareness campaign and educational program called Your Eyes Save Lives, which mobilizes communities to recognize and report human trafficking.
The office expanded their efforts to combat human trafficking by training Kentucky employees to recognize the signs of human trafficking. The office partnered with organizations like the Kentucky Beer Wholesalers Association to train their employees to recognize and report the signs of human trafficking. This program has trained 4000 people. Wagers expressed the importance of this training, “a lot of people think human trafficking doesn’t happen in small towns in Kentucky. The unfortunate truth is it happens across the Commonwealth, even in rural areas. In our training, we share examples to illustrate this fact.”
The Attorney General’s office and Lotus both recognize the important role that education plays in addressing child abuse and neglect in the Commonwealth.
“Education is so key—you’re not going to be able to prevent child abuse if you can’t recognize it. It’s just as important to know how to respond to it. Many times, authorities won’t know what occurred without community members taking part.”