Human trafficking mires Louisiana, law enforcement ramps up fight

Human trafficking mires Louisiana, law enforcement ramps up fight

BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - It has been compared to modern day slavery, and it is happening right here in Louisiana. Human trafficking afflicts people of all walks of life.

"Whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, human trafficking exists in our community and within our state," said George Mills.

Mills runs Hope House, a rehabilitation center for victims of human trafficking tucked away in the woods of South Louisiana.

"They come from all walks of life, they come from all different social economic bases, all different races, all different communities," Mills said. "When they come here, they're broken, they are beaten, they are fragile. Their life has literally been snatched away from them."

More often than not, the victims of sex trafficking in the United States are U.S. citizens. They are often young girls. Mills said one of the girls he worked with was first victimized at age eight.

Olivia is one of the victims currently residing at Hope House. Her name has been changed for her own protection. Although she is from out of state, her story is in many ways symptomatic of the life of a victim.

She grew up in what she described as an average, middle class family. She went to church and was working to finish her college degree.

That all changed almost overnight when she was in her late twenties. Through a dating website, she eventually connected with the man who would one day become her pimp. She met him over drinks. He was a friend of her date.

"Just as simple as, 'You want to make music with us.' And I was like, 'Yeah, great.' Next thing I know, I'm on Backpage and doing things I never thought I'd do," she said. "They promised me so many things that seemed like such a great idea. I really just wanted to pay off school, but the more I worked for them, I realized everything they promised was just a lie."

He forced her into a life of prostitution with sometimes more than 10 clients per day. She never saw the money she was promised. She lived in fear of the man who knew where her parents lived and who had a gun. She landed in jail twice in just five months.

"You would rather get a charge and sit your time out in jail than like tell on somebody's who's manipulating and taking advantage of you," Olivia said. "Girls who did snitch, you know, it immediately puts not even your life but your family's life in danger."

Victims are moved along major road arteries. In this way, Baton Rouge sits at a sort of nexus, with I-10 and I-12 running through the Capital City. I-10 in particular connects the main trafficking hubs of New Orleans and Houston.

Moving the girls from hotel to hotel and city to city allows traffickers to connect with more clients. It also has the added bonus of disorienting the girls. Unfamiliar with their surroundings, it is harder for them to run away.

In 2014, the Louisiana State Police stepped up their approach to trafficking. They teamed up with the Texas Department of Corrections to train those on the front lines in the fight.

"We've trained a lot of our patrol troopers to know what to look for, to know what signs to recognize," said Lt. Chad Gremillion of the Louisiana State Police Special Victims Unit.

In 2013, State Police investigated 19 cases of human trafficking. In 2014, that number ticked up to 22 cases. By 2015, the year after the training, that number jumped to 41 cases, an 86 percent spike.

"[It] shows that we're addressing the problem, and we're proactively working the cases," Gremillion said.

Of the 41 cases in 2015, 12 were minors.

The State Police works shoulder to shoulder with the FBI, often relying on them to hunt predators online, a place where many fall victim.

"I think what's most scary about the Internet is it makes people feel they are anonymous, I can assure you they are not," said Jeffrey Sallet, the Special Agent in Charge of the New Orleans Division of the FBI. "So the Internet gives us a tool that we can frankly focus in on who these bad guys are and drill down on holding them accountable."

Late last year, the FBI created a Violent Crimes Against Children squad, designed to handle, among other things, human trafficking.

"The victims are often people that have become so beaten down by the situation that they're in that they almost have an affection for the person that has been taking the violence out on them," Sallet said.

"The old days of just arresting them, those days are gone," Gremillion said. "It's having the resources, such as our faith based organizations, our non-governmental organizations that we use to get them into the resources and facilities they need to let their lives start over again."

That includes Hope House, where former victims learn life skills and have a safe place to undergo rehabilitation.

However, Hope House can only help so many at one time and other victims may be put in halfway houses or addiction centers, where there is the risk of falling back into trafficking.

George Mills also said that local law enforcement and district attorney's offices need additional funding in order to devote more energy toward fighting trafficking.

At Hope House, there have been many successes stories. Several residents have gotten their GEDs or driver's licenses. One resident is currently studying to be a medical assistant, while another aims to be a cosmetologist.

Meanwhile, Olivia is counting down the days to the birth of her baby girl. She does not know who the father is.

"I struggled with that for a long time, and was like 'who would want to be a baby like that, as the result of prostitution, but honestly all I can say is God came in and changed my heart about everything," Olivia said. "I want to be a mom, I want to finish college, and I want to rescue girls out of the same situation I've been in. I want to be a world changer."

Hope House operates solely on the back of donations. More information can be found HERE.

To help someone who may be victim, contact the LSP Special Investigations Division at 1-800-434-8007 or contact the National Human Trafficking Resource Center at (888) 373-7888.

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