BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - What do you really know about human trafficking? That was the question posed to a group of Baton Rouge young professionals during a Forum 35 panel discussion Thursday night.
"We drive down the interstates all the time, see billboards, we see things on the news Bring Back Our Girls, but what is that and what does it really mean here in Louisiana," said organizer Katie Barlow.
The answer opens up a complex world of forced labor and sexual exploitation that hits much closer to home than most think.
"Trafficking does not have to mean an international problem from country to country or border to border. It actually can be door to door in one community among a family," said Emily Morrow-Chenevert of Trafficking Hope, an advocacy organization.
The reality is, human trafficking is happening right here in Baton Rouge and the city's position on a map actually makes it a unique hotspot. Morrow-Chenevert explains that the intersection of I-10 and I-12 act like a trafficking corridor across nearby states and cities.
The panel of experts hoped to raise awareness about what trafficking truly is, and to change the public's perception. The meeting comes on the heels of recent trafficking arrests, as well as new state laws with tougher penalties and more support for victims. These advocates say it's also up the public to realize that things are not what they appear when it comes to prostitution or sex trafficking.
"A lot of times these women they are not choosing this lifestyle. They did not grow up thinking one day I want to be a prostitute I want to sell myself. They were forced into it, they were fraudulently pulled into it or they were coerced into it," said Morrow-Chenevert.
A representative from the area's Sexual Trauma Awareness and Response center, STAR, also said it's important to see these women and children as victims, not criminals.
"Start by believing and go from there and acknowledge that it's not the victim's fault," said Morgan Lamandre.
More information on human trafficking can be found here.