Understanding (And Fighting) The Growing Problem Of Human Trafficking
By Karla Wall
With the recent arrests resulting from a single case of human trafficking discovered at a local hotel, the issue has come into public focus.
As of Aug. 7, 10 individuals had been arrested in a case involving a young girl kept in a motel in Lake Charles. And the case is still unfolding. In another recent case, a 20-year-old man was arrested in Lake Charles and charged with trafficking.
The recent arrests have thrust the issue of human trafficking into the spotlight. But law enforcement officials and activists say that the problem has been ongoing in the area, and has “been on their radar,” for quite some time.
What Is Trafficking?
The definition of human trafficking might seem murky. One person might tell you that a prostitute being given a steady supply of drugs so she’ll agree to continue working is being trafficked. Another may tell you that he or she feels human trafficking involves only the kidnapping and transporting of a minor from out of state or from another country for the purpose of sex for profit — that it’s only the kidnapping and transport that qualifies as trafficking. Yet another might tell you any employee forced to work insanely long hours and housed in poor conditions by a company or a sponsor when not on the job is being trafficked. Some might even consider an extremely controlling or abusive spouse to be a trafficker.
According to state law, human trafficking occurs whenever a person “knowingly recruits, harbors, transports, solicits, receives, isolates, entices, obtains or maintains the use of another person through fraud, force or coercion to provide services or labor.”
The law goes on to say that anyone benefiting from or facilitating (providing a place for, support for or a clientele for) such activity is also breaking the law.
Calcasieu Parish District Attorney John DeRosier says his office focuses primarily on trafficking cases involving sexual exploitation. “We consider human trafficking to be bringing in females under the age of 21 for the purpose of performing sex-based activity from which the trafficker profits,” he says.
But trafficking can also involve people brought in to work in a restaurant or hotel, recruited and forced to dance in a strip club, or work in a field tending and harvesting crops.
For Rusty Havens, founder and director of SWLA Abolitionists, an agency dedicated to promoting awareness of and helping the victims of human trafficking, the definition is simple.
“Trafficking occurs when a person is used for labor or sex in exchange for something,” he says. “And the person doesn’t have a choice in the matter. A trafficker is always getting something in return — usually monetary profit.”
No Choice, No Control
The key, says Havens, is the victim’s lack of choice and control.
“Traffickers use anything to create dependency and maintain control of the victim,” he says. “If you don’t have anything and you can’t get on your feet, you have no alternate course of action but to submit,” he says.
While, as Havens says, “anyone can be a victim,” there are groups who are especially vulnerable to traffickers because they’re just desperate enough to agree to all of the trafficker’s demands and restrictions. Runaways, the homeless, those from low-income families, those who have mental or emotional problems or are mentally challenged, and particularly those who are addicted to drugs.
Drugs are an easy way to keep a victim under control. Physical violence or the threat of violence — to the victim or to the victim’s family members — is also a favorite tool. Money is also commonly used as a means of control. As DeRosier puts it, “some of these victims are given more money than they’ve ever seen in their lives.”
Traffickers also, says Havens, look for victims in other countries.
“Traffickers will go to other countries, look for a vulnerable person, and offer to solve this person’s problems by bringing them back to the U.S.,” he says. “ They promise to get the victim a good job.”
Once they’re here, says Havens, victims are completely vulnerable and under the trafficker’s control.
“They don’t speak the language here, they’re unfamiliar with the place, they have no money,” he says. “The trafficker has already told them it’s best if the trafficker keeps the victim’s documentation. The victim has no way to leave. There’s always a debt to be paid, as well, for the service of bringing them over here. But that debt never seems to get paid.”
That may be the reason the U.S. is ranked among the worst countries in the world when it comes to human trafficking cases, along with Mexico and the Philippines, according to a recent report by the U.S. State Dept.
But perhaps the biggest method of control, says Havens, particularly when it comes to younger people, is emotional dependency.
“A trafficker makes a victim believe they care about them,” Havens says. “They make the victim believe no one other than the trafficker cares about them.”
A favorite way to do that, says Havens, is for the trafficker to set up a fake social media page and sift through “friends” to find young people who are needy and vulnerable, especially those having trouble with their families.
“They talk to the victim about their family,” Havens says. “They may say ‘Hey, if you need to get away and talk, let’s meet and hang out for a while.’ They open the door and then exploit the situation.”
Marcy, a trafficking survivor, says she was trafficked by a man she met online.
“He asked me if I wanted to travel. I said I did. He took me to New Orleans and set up a Back Page site for me.” In New Orleans, she was arrested for prostitution, and he was arrested for trafficking. She ended up with another man in Houston and in a similar situation.
Both men, she says, “controlled the money and transportation.”
Victims can also form a dependency on the trafficker if they’re “groomed” from an early age to accept the lifestyle as normal. The victim comes to see being controlled and working for someone else’s profit as not only acceptable but comfortable.
That was the case for Marcy, who, like a lot of trafficking victims, had been “groomed” from an early age for prostitution. Her sister, she says, was a prostitute when Marcy was as young as 6 or 7, and Marcy simply saw the lifestyle as normal. “It was all I knew,” she says. “It was my life.”
How Big A Problem?
Human trafficking goes largely unreported. Victims are ashamed to come forward; they may be frightened of retaliation; or they may simply, thanks to careful grooming, not know they are in a dangerous and illegal situation, says Gene Pittman, criminal investigations director with the Calcasieu Parish Sheriff’s Office.
“People don’t report human trafficking. We usually come across trafficking cases while investigating another crime,” he says.
But that’s changing. According to the Louisiana Dept. of Child and Family Services, there were 744 cases of human trafficking in Louisiana last year, an increase of 63 victims over 2017 figures. Of those cases, 710 involved sex trafficking. Females were the victims in 91 percent of those cases. And 248 victims were juveniles.
According to William Sommers, director of Juvenile Justice Services for Calcasieu Parish, the parish saw eight cases of human trafficking last year, involving 19 victims.
Jacob Johnson, chief felony prosecutor for the Calcasieu Parish D.A.’s Office, says their office prosecuted three cases of human trafficking last year. So far this year, there’s been one indictment, along with several arrests.
It Doesn’t Always Start Out As A Trafficking Case
Most of these cases, as Pittman says, evolved from investigation of other crimes.
Sommers relates the story of a runaway from Arkansas who was picked up in Lake Charles.
“We had this girl in custody, and discovered that she had been trafficked from Dallas to Houston and then here into Lake Charles,” he says.
“Most cases come about because of arrests for something as simple as prostitution or possession,” says Johnson.
Marcy’s story seems to bear that out. She was arrested for prostitution here in Lake Charles and spent three days in jail.
“They went through my phone, and they found a photo of the man who had been my pimp,” she says. “They arrested him. Later, the D.A. came to talk to me and let me know that they had found a plane ticket to another country with my name on it. This guy had planned on taking me out of the country.”
Justice And Restoration
Once a trafficker is arrested, says DeRosier, the case is handled like any other — the D.A.’s office takes the case from law enforcement, seeks a grand jury indictment and tries the case.
Sentencing, says Johnson, depends on the age of the victim and the defendant’s criminal history, among other factors.
“Sentences can be up to 50 years, with a floor of about 15 years,” he says.
As for the victim, once a case is identified and under investigation by law enforcement, if the victim is a juvenile he or she is taken into custody and placed in child protective services or foster care and referred to a counseling center — the CPSO works very closely with Family and Youth Counseling Agency, says Pittman — to be interviewed to determine whether or not they have indeed been trafficked and to what extent.
“We provide interviews for children ages 3 to 17 — sometimes age 2 if the child is verbal,” says Erika Simon, counselor with Family and Youth, who says the agency saw 14 children involved in trafficking last year.
“We just provide a kid-friendly environment that makes them comfortable enough to open up to us. It takes a lot for a kid to disclose trafficking. They are often trained to keep their mouths shut.”
Following the rules set by the National Children’s Advocacy Center in Alabama, Family and Youth counselors engage the children in conversation — for instance asking them about their activities and plans. “We don’t ask them for names, and we don’t ask them leading questions. They have to give us the names voluntarily,” says Simon.
Family and Youth, says Simon, doesn’t make the determination as to whether trafficking occurred in a specific case. The interview with the child is recorded, she says, and forwarded to law enforcement for further investigation and action.
“If (the counselors) see red flags, the child is referred to the parish Office of Juvenile Justice,” says Sommers, “and from there we contact law enforcement.”
The identification of a trafficking case and the arrest of the trafficker is only the beginning. For the victim, there’s the task of dealing with the fallout — the long road to restoring dignity and self-esteem.
There are homes that specialize in the restoration of victims of trafficking. Magnolia House in Louisiana is a particularly good facility, says DeRosier. There, victims heal and learn to deal with a new normal.
Marcy was housed for a time in such a home. She underwent counseling and EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) therapy, a process designed in the 1980s to help trauma victims live with the memories resulting from their ordeals. Victims relive those memories while a therapist directs their eye movements, diverting the subject’s attention from the memory.
“It makes the memory smaller,” says Marcy. “It takes it from the forefront and makes it bearable.”
Despite therapy, however, Marcy says she’s still finding it very difficult to lead a “normal” life.
“I have trouble being around people and carrying on conversations,” she says. “There’s a lot of shame.”
Despite having such difficulty interacting with others, Marcy is determined to help others who are in the situation she was in, or are also recovering from it.
“I want to work with SWLA Abolitionists and do public speaking and group work,” she says. “My passion is working with teenagers.”
And that’s a big part of what SWLA Abolitionists, founded in 2014, is doing to address the issue of trafficking — encouraging survivors to help others.
“We help survivors volunteer and help other victims,” Havens says. “We help them speak to groups and share their stories. We connect them to people who need to hear their stories.”
The group also connects survivors to medical care and restoration homes, and works to raise awareness, speaking to civic groups and law enforcement. They also advocate for stronger laws against trafficking. The recently passed law setting the minimum age for marriage at 16 was something the group helped push for, Havens says.
“Before, there was no minimum age,” he says. “That was a major layer of protection for traffickers. They simply married their victims.”
A Multi-Level Approach
Awareness is only part of the answer, and law enforcement officials say it will take a team effort to combat the problem of human trafficking.
“We’re developing a multi-level approach,” says Sommers. “Our office, the D.A.’s Office, the Sheriff’s Office and the Dept. of Child and Family Services are working together to find ways to identify these children so that they can recover. It’s a team effort.”
How To Spot A Trafficking Situation
Human trafficking isn’t always easy to define. It’s not always easy to spot, either, says Havens, who adds that SWLA Abolitionists talk to law enforcement, hotel staff and civic groups frequently about how to identify trafficking situations.
“There are signs you can look for, depending on the situation,” he says. “Someone who doesn’t have control over their life — they can’t go where they want when they want. Someone who has no freedom of expression — they can’t voice an opinion or answer questions without checking with their oppressor. Someone who has no control over their own ID — they don’t have their own license or personal documentation. Or someone who works all the time and still never seems to have money.”
Those who see what they consider a suspicious situation should call local law enforcement. You can also reach SWLA Abolitionists at 476-9868.
It will take a concerted effort by law enforcement, and a willingness to come forward on the part of victims and those who know someone who is being victimized by traffickers to combat the growing problem of human trafficking. But, as DeRosier says, the community needs to “send a message that human trafficking won’t be tolerated here.”
“There are many evils in world,” he continues, “and this is one.”