Bill would create office to fight sex trafficking

John Guidroz

The Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee approved legislation Wednesday by state Sen. Ronnie Johns that seeks to create an office dedicated to fighting the ongoing human trafficking problem in Louisiana.

Senate Bill 170 would create the Office of Human Trafficking Prevention under the governor’s office, something Johns said would make the current effort less fragmented. It heads to the Senate floor for consideration.

Johns, R-Sulphur, has spent the last several years pushing legislation to end human trafficking in Louisiana. There were 927 confirmed cases of human trafficking statewide in 2019, 59 percent of them involving juveniles, he said. In 2020, there were 759 reported cases of human trafficking, with 70 percent involving juveniles. Last year’s case numbers were high, even with a lack of reporting from agencies and with certain businesses, such as bars and strip clubs, being closed because of COVID-19 restrictions.

“The problem is not going away,” Johns said. “The reason is there is too much money involved in this. When the number one source of illegal money in this world is human slavery, we have a problem.”

SB 170 came about because of a law passed by the Legislature in 2019. Act 409 brought various state agencies together to research and develop a model to best deal with human trafficking. Those agencies included the Department of Children and Family Services, Department of Health and the Louisiana Supreme Court’s Family in Need of Services Assistance Program.

States like Texas, Florida, Minnesota and Oregon have successfully rolled out human trafficking offices, Johns said. While Texas officials began fighting human trafficking after Louisiana, their effort has come together quickly because of its “model program” created under the governor’s office that is dedicated to the cause, he said.

“It’s a common-sense way of addressing this problem,” Johns said of the office.

Working with Texas is critical because Interstates 10 and 20 are considered major pipelines for human trafficking, Johns said. A human trafficking office, he said, can help the state secure more federal and private grants to fight the problem.

Marketa Walters, Department of Children and Family Services secretary, said the department only had legal authority over 110 out of the 927 human trafficking cases reported in 2019. She said the department’s legal responsibility only applies to instances where a child’s parents are culpable.

The handling of human trafficking cases is split between various agencies, Walters said. State Police and local law enforcement conduct sting operations. The DCFS, Office of Juvenile Justice and state Health Department help place victims in group homes or facilities that can help with behavioral or mental health. Hospitals treat victims who have been physically abused and protect them from their attackers.

Walters said faith-based organizations and nonprofits are at the forefront of fighting human trafficking. Combatting human trafficking should be at a high level of state authority, not buried in one department, especially when the issue involves multiple agencies, Walters said.

First Lady Donna Edwards was scheduled to present the legislation to the committee, but did not attend because of the death of her father, Johns said.””

Gov. John Bel Edwards holds a plaque alongside Pope Francis in Rome. The plaque was blessed and dedicated to Metanola Manor, a facility designed to counsel adolescent victims of human trafficking. Along with the pope and Edwards are Sister Eugenia Bonetti, second from left, the Rev. Jeff Bayhi, and third from left, Sen. Ronnie Johns of Sulphur, second from right on the second row. 

Special to the American Press