New alliance formed to combat human trafficking

Published 11:45 am Thursday, September 21, 2023

Southwest Louisiana is a target for human traffickers due to its location on the I-10 corridor between Houston and New Orleans. To combat human trafficking in the area, local, state and federal partners have collaborated to create the Alliance to Fight Human Trafficking in SWLA.

This was announced by area officials at a kick-off event at L’Auberge Casino Resort on Wednesday.

The alliance is composed of law enforcement agencies, prosecutors, local service agencies and nonprofits with the mission to “identify, investigate and prosecute those individuals responsible for human trafficking, all while providing quality social services to those who find themselves a victim to this horrendous crime,” according to the alliance’s strategic plan.

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Gene Pittman, alliance secretary, Calcasieu Parish Sheriff’s Office enforcement commander, said the formation of the alliance is two and a half years in the making. In 2020, CPSO was approached by the U.S. Attorney’s Office with the proposition that they create a human trafficking task force that emulates those in Shreveport. After unexpected delays, efforts restarted in 2021. The creation of this task force is the origin story of the alliance.

He wanted the alliance to be centered around community-oriented organizations.

“There’s one thing in this community, in Southwest Louisiana and Calcasieu Parish, that we are very rich in is advocate groups, non-profit organizations. Groups that help and do things for the community, and that’s what we have going on here. … We in law enforcement play a huge part, but I wanted us to be secondary because the approach to human trafficking is very victim-centered.”

Anthony Celestine, alliance vice-chair, Office of Juvenile Justice director, said community collaboration is one of SWLA’s strengths.

“Anytime there is a problem, an issue, involving our kids or the safety of our community, we come together. We galvanize ourselves around the issue, and we stand by whatever that is.”

The severity of human trafficking in SWLA has been exacerbated by a lack of public understanding or acknowledgement.

In a release, Pittman said “human traffkcing is uncomfortable to acknowledge and discuss.”

“The lack of public acknowledgment has hindered progress in the fight against human trafficking. It is time we acknowledge that in SWLA, we are not immune to the proliferation of sex and labor trafficking across the globe.”

David Duplechain, regional care coordinator, Children’s Advocacy Center, said at the announcement that a large portion of the population are unaware of the reality of human trafficking.

“If you’ve seen ‘Taken’ or you’ve seen ‘Sound of Music,’ forget about it. … That is not what human trafficking looks like in Southwest Louisiana.”

From July 1, 2022 to June 30, 2023.While working in care coordination, in conjunction with the Governor’s Office for Human Trafficking Prevention, he worked with 27 victims of human trafficking in SWLA. Out of the 27 victims, only three were not local; three were under the age of 12 and 23 victims were teens. One victim was 19, but had entered human trafficking at 14.

Throughout the state, 992 cases of human trafficking were reported; 693 cases involved children under the age of 18, while 296 cases had victims 18 or older. The average age of entrance into human trafficking is 11 to 14.

Celestine noted that human trafficking is significantly underreported.

“The true depths of what we’re facing is unknown.”

He said the alliance will have three focus areas: education, advocacy and action.

Elizabeth McLughlin, field representative for Congressman Clay Higgins, said the goals included in these areas range from awareness campaigns to training to connecting victims with vital recovery resources. The alliance will also support legislation to enhance victim’s rights.

The long term goal is to establish a housing rehabilitation facility for victims in SWLA.

Funding is needed to fight human trafficking in the area. The alliance is waiting to receive 501 c(3) status, so donations are being accepted through the Family Foundation of SWLA.

The inaugural fundraising event for the alliance is planned for Thursday, January 11, 2024, National Human Trafficking Awareness Day.

Suspected human trafficking can be reported to the 24/7 anonymous tip line by calling 337-491-SWLA (7952)