Some call it sex trafficking. Others call it modern-day slavery. One Louisiana parish, Caddo, has the highest number of child and adult victims recovered in the state—with 22 confirmed cases of human trafficking in 2015, according to the Louisiana Department of Children & Family Services data.
But it’s not all about the numbers. There is a real human cost.
“Julie” —her real name is withheld in order to protect her identity—was nine when her mother started selling her to men to pay for drug money, said Caddo Parish’s juvenile probation director Laurie McGehee.
Julie’s parents had also taught her older sister to recruit other children.
When the Department of Children & Family Services became involved in the case, staff relocated Julie to a different parish for her safety. She’s currently living in a group home.
Trafficking touches almost every parish in the state.
Louisiana had 244 cases of human trafficking in 2015, DCFS data shows. One hundred and four of those cases involved children.
“If you look at the data, there [are] more slaves in the world today than at any time in history,” said George Mills, Trafficking Hope in Baton Rouge’s executive director. “But we don’t want to call it that.”
Over the past four years, Louisiana has received close to $3 million in federal funds to aid efforts to combat human trafficking.
The state has made significant progress since ratcheting up anti-trafficking efforts in 2012 and currently has some of the best anti-trafficking legislation in the nation, according to a Shared Hope International report.
But despite collaborative efforts across the state, Louisiana still faces significant challenges in its journey toward change — including finding more funding for service providers and law enforcement, more safe homes and trauma-informed care for victims, and more awareness and action from the public.
The term “human trafficking” encompasses both sex trafficking and forced labor. All future references to trafficking in this series will relate specifically to sex trafficking.
Sex trafficking is defined as adults working in the sex industry through force, fraud or coercion; or children younger than 18 involved in the sex industry.
In 2013, a Bossier Parish couple made headlines when undercover detectives discovered they were forcing two teenage girls to sell sex for $60 out of their home in Elm Grove.
They were arrested on a charge of “inciting prostitution” and later convicted on counts of cruelty to a juvenile and contributing to the delinquency of a juvenile.
Their case is an example of a growing trend called “homegrown trafficking”— where parents, relatives or other caregivers prostitute their own children for money to pay for rent, drugs or other goods.
The Louisiana Department of Children & Family Services confirmed at least seven such cases of children sold by their caregivers in 2015.
The Gingerbread House, a child advocacy center serving nine parishes in northwest Louisiana, estimated it sees up to 30 suspected cases of homegrown trafficking each year.
And last year, 13 child victims were recovered by FBI efforts in the Shreveport area alone.
But not all victims originate in Louisiana. Some are trafficked into the state.
The state serves as a hub for sex trafficking mainly because of its Interstates — particularly I-20 and I-49, according to FBI Senior Resident Agent Chris Cantrell.
Victims are trafficked into the area from major cities such as San Antonio, Houston and Dallas, said Caddo Parish Juvenile Probation Director Laurie McGehee.
An example of that occurred earlier this month, when a 27-year-old Texas man was arrested for trafficking a 14-year-old girl from Dallas to northwest Louisiana.
An undercover agent responded to an online ad for prostitution and then recovered the teen from a Shreveport hotel room. Her trafficker was arrested and sentenced to 14 years and 10 months in prison.
In February, DCFS put out its most recent report about the scope of the problem in the state.
Data collected from 13 of the state’s 56 service agencies that work with trafficking victims — including nonprofits, child advocacy centers, church groups and several of the state’s safe houses — reported 289 confirmed and prospective victims of sex trafficking since 2014.
Laura Fulco, a Caddo Parish assistant district attorney, said Louisiana has some of the harshest penalties in the nation for traffickers and buyers.
In recent years, “pimping” has been upgraded — from “pandering” and a misdemeanor charge that carries a maximum $5,000 fine — to a felony charge with a potential $50,000 fine and sentences ranging from 15 to 50 years of hard labor.
Those who force children younger than 14 into the sex industry face fines of up to $75,000 and sentences of 25 to 50 years of hard labor.
Buyers, or “Johns,” face $500 fines and not more than six months in jail.
States Fail to Keep Track
But states are not required to keep track of trafficking-related prosecution rates, according to the 2015 Trafficking in Persons report.
It states “There is no formal mechanism to track prosecutions at the state and local level.”
The Louisiana Attorney General’s office does not keep data related to the numbers of traffickers and buyers arrested or the types of sentencing a conviction carries.
“We do not keep those statistics, nor do we have that type of statewide data,” Louisiana Attorney General office’s communications officer Ruth Wisher wrote in an email. “It is possible that the (district attorneys) and clerks of court for the respective judicial districts may have that information.”
Or they may not.
Fulco said the Caddo Parish’s District Attorney’s office keeps track of prostitution-related counts, but sentencing lengths related to actual convictions were not readily accessible through the system database.
The true numbers of the state’s trafficked individuals are most likely kept in shadow, said former New Orleans Chief of Police Ronal Serpas.
In his 34 years as a police officer, Serpas encountered several victims of trafficking during sting operations and while on the beat.
‘A Dark Underworld’
“This is a dark underworld business,” Serpas said. “The purpose of this business is to hold women in servitude against their will through the use of drugs, alcohol, violence. So it’s not as simple as you would think to break into these circuits and really understand them. Having said that, it’s much larger than we think.”
Law enforcement has to recover victims from a number of businesses that can act as “fronts” for trafficking — such as massage parlors, spas and strip clubs, according to a 2015 Trafficking in Persons report — in addition to traditional sting operations and arrests by officers and deputies on the beat.
A plurality of recoveries — 18 percent — came from hotels and motels, but law enforcement also recovered 6 percent of victims from online ads, according to 2015 data from the National Human Trafficking Resource Center.
Funding is one of the major obstacles for agencies trying to make a difference, Mills said. Federal funding is scarce, and state-appropriated funding is non-existent.
Mills also said dedication to addressing trafficking issues varies widely across the state’s 64 parishes.
The state has been very active because of certain individuals that have taken it upon themselves, who know what’s happening and know it’s wrong,” Mills said.
“You don’t have dedicated people to combat human trafficking in all departments across the state.”
Louisiana has several task forces, including the Child Exploitation Task Force and the New Orleans Human Trafficking Task Force, and a number of coalitions scattered throughout the state — including the Louisiana Coalition Against Human Trafficking in the south and the Free Coalition in the North.
But scattered efforts won’t be enough to effectively eradicate the enormity of the problem, Mills said.
Other challenges include a lack of emergency housing and trauma-informed care for recovering victims, as well as housing and job opportunities for victims once they are ready to re-integrate into society.
Many of these issues will only start to be addressed when people start to become more aware and involved, Mills said.
‘Not Enough Noise’
“People aren’t making enough noise yet,” Mills said.
“There’s not enough noise being made about the problem of human trafficking, and part of it is because people don’t want to own up and realize that something like slavery is still going on in our communities and our state.”
Katherine Green, a Baton Rouge lawyer and former Baton Rouge Human Trafficking Task Force chairwoman, says that despite efforts to carve out special laws, “there are still some people who don’t realize that human trafficking is an issue, but we have come very far since 2003-04.”
A 2013 analysis by the Washington D.C. nonprofit Polaris Project found increased funding and mandates for law enforcement were major areas where the state’s legislation could improve.
…Certain law enforcement agencies also have received federal funds for human trafficking efforts: Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s office, for example, received a $600,000 Department of Justice grant to be spread out over three years.
But most police departments and sheriff’s offices have to pull funds from their overall budgets.
The federal 2014 Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act tasked child welfare agencies to create policies and procedures for identifying child victims of trafficking and connect them with appropriate services.
The second area of improvement identified by Polaris Project is related to immunity for child victims.
Only six states — Illinois, Mississippi, Nebraska, North Carolina, Tennessee and Vermont — grant full immunity to child victims.
Louisiana is a Safe Harbor state — meaning children involved in the sex industry should not be convicted as criminals because they can’t legally consent to paid sexual acts.
But in the state’s history, children have been charged with prostitution and traffickers have been charged with lesser offenses — such as “inciting prostitution” or “racketeering” — when teen victims are involved.
Editor’s Note: Sex trafficking of juveniles is among the topics that will be explored in next week’s special symposium at John Jay College in New York on “Children and the Law: Changing the Culture of Juvenile Justice.” Please watch TCR for reports from the conference.
This is an abridged version of a series published this month in conjunction with a Reporting Fellowship awarded by John Jay Criminal College and the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation. The full names of the victims in this series are withheld to protect their identity. Full names only appear for those who’ve publicly identified themselves as a trafficking victim through books or documentaries. The complete version of the series with video reportage is available here. Readers’ comments are welcome.