Human trafficking focus of conference

By Jack Vanchiere

Understanding human trafficking and identifying possible victims was one of the topics discussed during last week’s 21st Connections Count! Professional Development Conference, hosted by the Family and Youth Counseling Agency of Lake Charles at L’Auberge Casino Resort.

More than 300 licensed professional counselors heard about changing gender issues, ethics for mental health professionals, and trends on abuse intervention, therapy and counseling.

A presentation by Corie Hebert, an associate professor in the Social Work Program at Southeastern Louisiana University, was aimed at raising awareness on human trafficking and its growth throughout Louisiana. She discussed how to spot the signs of trafficking, along with those who may be at risk of becoming victims.

The Department of Homeland Security defines human trafficking as “modern day slavery.” Hebert said human trafficking is “a market-driven criminal industry based on the principles of supply and demand, run by cunning and intelligent business persons who prey on the vulnerable.”

Hebert discussed different terms of the trade, describing sex and labor traffickers such as “Romeo” and “gorilla” pimps. She also featured audio excerpts from survivors of trafficking describing their experiences.

According to the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services 2018 Human Trafficking Report, the state saw 681 reported cases of trafficking, with 438 of those confirmed. Calcasieu Parish saw 21 cases, with Caddo, Orleans, St. Tammany, East Baton Rouge and Jefferson parishes having the highest rates of reported cases.

“Our victims aren’t necessarily local kids, but kids who are runaways typically from an abusive situation that end up in our area,” said Erika Simon, Family and Youth Counseling Agency vice president.

Simon praised law enforcement and Child Protection Services for their help in identifying potential victims of human trafficking.

“They’ll contact us to do the forensic interviews to get more information so they can assess for safety and possibly alleged offenders who are involved,” she said. “We’re the neutral body involved, so everything is brought to our center.”

Typically, law enforcement is notified of questionable activity, like “a child who is at a hotel with suspicious people and the circumstances don’t look normal,” Simon said.

“We’re not necessarily seeking these children, but it’s through agency referral that we are able to see (them),” she added.

With more than half of the reported cases involving youths 17 and under, the Calcasieu Office of Juvenile Justice Services has recently increased its efforts to fight this growing problem.

“We began to look at our processes over a year ago and bringing in trainers to the community,” OJJS Director Bill Sommers said.

Many groups are working together to tackle human trafficking, Sommers added. Experienced employees formed an internal team to review how human trafficking victims are currently staffed and treated.

“The goal is to have a parish-wide, fully functional, multi-disciplinary team so each agency that is involved with these children knows what the others are and what they can do,” Sommers said.

Sommers applauded legislation pushed by state Sen. Ronnie Johns, R-Sulphur, and approved by the Legislature, that combats human trafficking. One law increased the threshold age for victims from 18 to 21.

“(It) is outstanding because it enhances the penalties for those preying on our young adults,” Sommers said.

Another law requires traffickers to register as sex offenders. Those convicted face anywhere from 15-50 years in prison and up to $50,000 in fines.

To report a tip, contact The National Human Trafficking Hotline at 888-373-7888, or the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children at 800-843-5678.””Human Trafficking graphic