Ugly truth in our own backyard
By Amanda Bedgood
HUMAN TRAFFICKING is a modern-day form of slavery involving the illegal trade of people for exploitation or commercial gain. Transportation across any border is not required to meet the definition and in the U. S. trafficking often looks like online escort services, residential or massage parlors brothels and street prostitution.
At 16 years old most girls are looking forward to picking out prom dresses and passing a driving test.
This one? She’s surviving. A picture of her is above a list of sexual acts, prices and a phone number.
What about the people that are supposed to love and care for her? They may be the ones at the other end of the line or driving the car to the motel.
She’s not in some developing nation or even a major city. She’s in Lafayette, Louisiana, and she’s not always in “that part of town.”
“This is not something that happens in certain seedy sections of town or just in massage parlors,” said George Mills, the man at the helm of one of the only safe havens in the state specifically for victims of trafficking, Hope House in Baton Rouge.
The something that Mills is referring to is human trafficking. It covers the breadth of humans for trade for everything from slavery for passage to the United States to prostitution and children being sold online for use in pornography.
In this country we talk about the slave trade in past tense. We shouldn’t.
Between 14,500 and 17,500 people are trafficked each year in this country alone, according to the Polaris Project, a leader in the global fight to eradicate modern slavery and restore freedom to survivors. Since 2008 the number of cases their hotline receives per year have skyrocketed from about 1,000 to more than 5,000.
Law enforcement officials and others in Louisiana and Acadiana say the I-10 corridor is a ripe thruway for trafficking of people, and technology is making it easier by the day for traffickers to see less risk and more reward for their crimes.
Louisiana State Police Trooper M/T Brooks David explained that they’ve long known the interstate provides a straight shot for those in the drug business. Today, those dealers have found trading people can be a more lucrative endeavor with less risk.
If you get pulled over with drugs in your car, you go to jail. If you get pulled over with a woman in the car, you might not. Drugs you only sell once, people can be sold over and over again.
“It does still happen on the street corner. But crime advances with technology, and many sites provide a medium for this crime to continue,” said Sgt. Stacey Pearson with the Louisiana State Police’s Special Victims Unit that was formed a year ago.
More than 30 women were listed on a classified website for Lafayette in less than a 24-hour period at the time this piece was published.
While human trafficking often conjures images of physical bondage, which is the reality in some cases, perhaps more difficult to break and to understand are those bonds that don’t involve a cage or chains. Furthermore, those victims do not see themselves as such.
“These ladies that society judges as prostitutes, think they do this of their own free will and is a huge mistake and error in judgment,” admitted Mills. “What lady says, ‘I want to be a prostitute? Most are doing it through some kind of manipulation. Lafayette is one area where victims are heavily trafficked.”
He said not only is Lafayette on I-10, but it also has an influx of men and money that come and go because of the nature of the oil and gas industry.
“Adult social media and other sites … are very sophisticated, and it’s very difficult for law enforcement to track,” Mills disclosed.
“Unfortunately, many adults who are actually being trafficked do not identify themselves as victims,” said Kim Brooks, the programs manager at Hearts of Hope in Lafayette. “Like many survivors of sexual assault and abuse, they have formed a relationship with their abusers.”
The process can begin with contact via social media and snowball into a relationship that seemed innocuous. Mills recalled one woman who met a man in such a way. “He raped her, turned her out and threatened her,” Mills said, noting Lafayette was part of the story but declining to be more specific for the woman’s safety.
“Maybe he promises her a better life … maybe she has very few options … or maybe she has a drug habit that he supports. Many who want out of the situation have no idea where to go or that there are resources to help them,” Brooks stated.
There is certainly a population more at risk for becoming a victim of trafficking: runaways or homeless children. Some are sold by their own parents. Others are manipulated by a person that finally seems to care for them.
“They can be emotionally and financially bound, and they don’t know anything different,” Pearson said, continuing, “They don’t know there is a better life.
When you lose that hope and foresight you don’t see yourself out of a difficult situation. You have Hope House that shows these young women there is something better out there for them.”
While human trafficking conjures images of a certain type of woman (which is not always the case), where is the face of the buyer?
“Buyers are everyday people. Everyday men and everyday women. It’s just regular people. People you work with and people in our schools and people that hold high-level positions. There is no ‘type’ of person that buys sex,” reports a police officer, pointing to a New Orleans police officer recently arrested for soliciting prostitution.
Mills said law enforcement is increasingly searching for and executing better ways to prosecute traffickers. “If you want to make a difference you get the traffickers off the street and curb the clientele.”
In some countries the entire approach to ending sex trafficking is aimed at the demand. In 1999 following a ground breaking legislation, Sweden made buying sex illegal rather than selling it. Street prostitution reduced by 80 percent, brothels and massage parlors have nearly vanished, and they estimate 200 to 400 victims have been trafficked a year compared to neighbor Finland that sees 15,000 to 17,000 trafficked.
Prostitution is now regarded as violence against women and children and a social problem rather than an exchange between consenting parties. Sweden has systematically abolished the idea that sex trafficking is a victimless crime.
Pearson acknowledged the need to combat demand as much as supply. Pointing to the cases she has seen she said, “It makes me angry when people say it’s a victimless crime.” Pregnant prostitutes and babies at the site of a deal, families in shambles, drugs and STDs all have victims.
Mills concurred that identifying traffickers is an uphill battle in cases with unresponsive victims considering their trafficker to be their boyfriend or caretaker. Media doesn’t dig. Pastors aren’t talking about it from pulpits.
“People think, ‘This is not happening in my backyard,’ and that’s the first thing that has to be driven down. There is proof it’s happening here,” Mills confirmed.
One glance at any of the websites aimed at selling sex is enough to make it seem an impossible monster to deter and the women impossible to reach. But, people like Pearson, David and Mills are not deterred.
There are fundamental strategies in reducing victimization including reducing the number of runaways, who are most vulnerable to trafficking.
Technology is creating an easier pathway for buyers, but it’s also creating a trail. Police are battling traffickers with trails easily erased and newer ways to hide IP addresses and burner phones.
“I don’t think anyone wants to work these kinds of cases. But, when you can make an arrest it feels good that you can get somebody really bad off the street,” Pearson said.
For Mills, the future that Hope House can provide for victims is a certainty, but the funding is scarce. There is no established governmental funding for the place that can house 14 women over 18 years old.
The development of these kinds of rehabilitation and shelter locations is in its infancy. There are far more animal shelters than there are places for trafficking victims.
While there are safe house and women’s shelters, the specific needs of trafficking victims are singular in many ways. “It requires funding and resources and a place that the individuals caught up in this have a place to go and be able to correct some of the damage done to them.”
Amanda Bedgood is a grateful believer in Jesus Christ, writer, wrangler of one wild child named Wilder and maker of gluten-free roux.