BEAM: Human Trafficking Really Is A Problem In Louisiana

Let’s be honest now. How many of you out there were aware that human trafficking is a major crime problem in Louisiana? Did you know that Baton Rouge ranks in the top 10 cities where human beings are placed in bondage for sexual purposes?

Gov. Bobby Jindal brought the issue to light last week during what up to that point had been a lackluster first week of the regular legislative session. He noted that most of us usually think of such things happening in faraway places like Eastern Europe, Asia or Africa. “… But those are just a few of many places around the globe where this tragedy is happening,” Jindal said. “It is an actual underground business happening right here in our state and throughout our nation…”

Actually, a number of stories on human trafficking have been published in Louisiana newspapers and featured on television stations in recent years. Maybe some of us have remained in the dark because we don’t see it as a local problem. And perhaps we in the media could have done more to make everyone aware that no community escapes the scourge of this horrific crime.

Col. Mike Edmonson, superintendent of State Police, reeled off some statistics last week that brought home the pervasiveness of the crime. He said State Police have opened 476 solicitation cases, 310 child pornography cases and 390 exploitation cases since 2008. It was only a misdemeanor before Jindal took office, but it’s a priority now, he said.

Adults, and parents in particular, should take heed to what Edmonson said about how young girls get trapped into human trafficking. Most victims say the same thing, he said: Someone paid attention to them and made them feel more valuable.”

Jindal added, “Often the most vulnerable in society are targeted — those who have been abused or who don’t have a family to walk through life with every day. There are millions of women living in this slavery who will go to sleep tonight praying for a way out, praying for a voice in the midst of darkness. That is why we are proposing this (human trafficking) legislation — to be a voice for those who do not have one.”

Clemmie Greenlee, a former victim of sex trafficking from Nashville, helped Jindal shine the spotlight on the problem and give it a human face. Times-Picayune, told Greenlee’s story over a year ago. “Former sex trafficking victim shines light on dark underworld of Super Bowl,” said the headline.

Greenlee said those who victimize young girls make them think they are developing a loving relationship. That is what happened to her at age 12, she said, when she was abducted and gang-raped by her captors who injected her and others with heroin, tortured them and, at times, handcuffed them to beds.

Freedom for Greenlee came in her 30s when she ran away from her captors. They didn’t chase her, she said, because she had “aged out.” A former sex worker who knew Greenlee visited her often and left cards at Magdalene House, a safe house in Nashville. However, it wasn’t until Greenlee was 42 that she decided she had to learn how to “live and heal.”

“The one thing I had in my head was, ‘If I learn how to live and heal, I can get back and get those girls. I can go back and tell people what they do to us…,’” she said.

Greenlee now works with Eden House in New Orleans, which is described as “a safe haven for women who have survived lives of human trafficking, prostitution, violence and addiction.”

Local residents will be happy to know that Willie Mount, former state senator and mayor of Lake Charles, in 2011 urged legislators to form the Human Trafficking Study Work Group. Its goal was to assess the problem and make policy recommendations to Jindal. Obviously, some of that led to the governor’s planned all-out attack on human trafficking that he announced Tuesday.

Two bills form the nucleus of what the governor wants to do. One of the two is by Rep. Neil Abramson, D-New Orleans. It creates harsher punishments and better tools for cracking down on human trafficking. The seizure of personal property belonging to those engaged in the crime will provide some of the funding necessary to help rehabilitate victims.

Greenlee talked about ending up in jail a hundred times, and the second bill by Rep. Julie Stokes, R-Jefferson Parish, would create human trafficking courts and train judges who handle those cases.

“… Human trafficking victims are often prosecuted as offenders when the real need of the victim is rescue, restoration and rehabilitation,” Stokes said.

The member of a Baton Rouge federal court’s human trafficking task force in 2011 said many victims are afraid to say anything, fearing retaliation against them or their families. And some of the youngest victims — 12 to 14 — aren’t even aware they are being exploited, she said.

Let’s hope this new emphasis on human trafficking, a more concerted law enforcement effort and trained judges who can steer the victims toward rehabilitation will do as Jindal said — protect the most vulnerable members of Louisiana society from sexual exploitation.

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