The numbers are astounding, and at first glance, seem almost incredible.
Across the world, there are between 100,000 and 250,000 children who are victims of sex trafficking, said Laura J. Lederer, president and founder of the Washington, D.C.-based Global Centurion Foundation, which seeks to target trafficking by focusing on demand.
But the perception that the practice of selling girls for sex is restricted to Asia, Eastern Europe or Africa belies the overwhelming problem in the United States, which annually is highlighted by the spike in organized sex trafficking at major sporting events such as the Super Bowl, said Lederer, who participated in a daylong workshop hosted recently by the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Louisiana.
“We want to help people understand that this is a problem here in the United States,” Lederer said. “We have a homegrown sex trafficking problem.”
Task force set up
Trafficking girls for sex is such a major concern that the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Orleans has established a Human Trafficking Joint Task Force that, in advance of Super Bowl XLVII on Feb. 3, has been meeting regularly with city, state and federal law enforcement authorities, faith-based groups and nongovernmental organizations to develop a collaborative approach to combat the problem.
Archbishop Gregory Aymond, Saints owner Tom Benson and his wife Gayle, and other city officials will air a public service announcement before the Super Bowl to raise public awareness and ask people to remain vigilant if they suspect sex trafficking. The ad will highlight a toll-free hotline number – 888-373-7888 – which is staffed 24 hours a day by the Polaris Project of the National Human Trafficking Resource Center.
“Human trafficking, modern-day slavery, is a powerful evil,” Archbishop Aymond says in the PSA.
Exact numbers are difficult to come by, but experts estimated that for Super Bowl XLIV in Miami – ironically, won by the Saints – about 10,000 prostitutes descended on South Florida for the game. Officials also know that website solicitations – most of the solicitations occur online these days – shoot up during the week of major sporting events.
“Human trafficking is basically a form of slavery,” said local attorney John Krentel, who is on the board of Eden House, a newly opened, privately funded, safe haven in New Orleans for women seeking to leave prostitution or human trafficking, which is not as easy as simply walking away.
N.O. is a hub of activity
New Orleans is a major trafficking city in the U.S., Krentel said, because it sits on the heavily traveled I-10/I-12 corridor between Houston and Atlanta.
“There are a lot of nefarious people up to no good,” Krentel said. “New Orleans is also a port city, and there are a lot of people coming through. But I want to emphasize, these are American citizens we are talking about – not foreign nationals.”
Krentel got involved with Eden House after having worked with the Legislature to strengthen Louisiana’s criminal code and children’s code. In 2011, he worked to pass a concurrent resolution in the Louisiana Senate to form a study group on the human trafficking of minors. Rep. Neil Abramson, D-New Orleans, also has been a strong proponent of stiffening anti-trafficking laws in Louisiana, and he helped pass an amendment to the Louisiana’s children’s code defining a child involved in human trafficking as “a child in need of care.”
“In other words, as a victim,” Krentel said.
Eden House, which is modeled on a Nashville program, opened its doors in November and has in residence two former prostitutes, both in their early 20s, said Kara French, program director. French had worked as a U.S. diplomat in Jamaica from 2005-06 and wrote a trafficking report that highlighted the problem of the sex trade involving minors in that tourist-friendly country.
When she returned to New Orleans, she realized just how bad the local problem was.
“The standard age of entry into prostitution is 12 to 14 years old,” French said. “Those statistics are from the U.S. Department of Justice. After having worked for the government, I know any figures they use, in general, are very conservative.
“So if 12 to 14 is the average, think about an 18-year-old. How many 10-year-olds would have to enter to make 12 to 14 the average? People have the common misperception that this is about college girls who dance a little and head over to Daddy Warbucks to get through school. The average is 12 to 14. What 12-year-old wakes up and decides to be a prostitute? Twelve-year-olds don’t sell themselves for sex.”
Trapped: Nowhere to turn
French said it is not a simple process for a woman to escape the clutches of her pimp and leave the business. They are threatened and beaten, physically and psychologically, and they normally have lost touch with any family or friends who can help them escape.
“Most of our residents have started prostitution as minors and they haven’t gone to school,” French said. “If your life is being sold seven to 10 times a day, you’re not going to school. Part of the grooming process is to drug the girls and then gang-rape them. Once you are drugged and gang-raped, you are broken and there is nothing you can do. Men generally pay more to have sex with a child, so as an adult, your value goes down.”
The U.S. Attorney’s Office would not comment on law enforcement plans for Super Bowl XVII, but law enforcement officials are expected to be out in force.
Targeting the demand side
Lederer said her nonprofit group targets the demand side because if the law only went after prostitutes, “there will always be more victims to replace them.”
“We’ve done a good job on the victims’ side – the supply side – with shelters, and the Catholic Church has been involved in that,” Lederer said. “And we’ve done a better job over the last 10 years prosecuting traffickers. What’s missing is the demand side, the men who drive the market. We need to reach young men and boys – the new generation – and help them understand that human beings should never be bought and sold. We’re trying to reach people from a values-based, faith-based and human rights-based approach about the sacredness, worth and dignity of every human being.”
Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans has a human trafficking outreach coordinator, Lindsey Boettinger, who distributes educational material and talks to community groups about both forced labor and sex trafficking. She works with Free-Nola.com, a faith-based coalition charged with “raising awareness to stop the exploitation of men, women and children in human trafficking,” said Free-Nola spokeswoman Emily Ruffino.
“We want to raise awareness and teach people what to look for, and then they can call the human trafficking hotline if they see someone who looks like they are being trafficked,” Ruffino said.
Message with the soap
One of Free-Nola’s initiatives is “SOAP” – Save Our Adolescents from Prostitution. Bars of soap are being distributed to area hotels with a message bearing the anti-trafficking hotline number. That message might be read by a minor who wants to escape the prostitution business.
“Quite a few hotels in the area have agreed to pass out the soap,” Ruffino said.
Krentel said he hopes recent laws strengthening protection for minors will help those who have been sucked into the business escape and form a new way of life. Minors who are arrested for prostitution are entitled to receive health and mental health services immediately upon being taken into custody, he said.
“With the coming of the Super Bowl, there will be an increase in human trafficking,” Krentel said. “And where there is an increase, there are more victims. And where there are more victims, there are more minors who are victims.”
The best advice: Call local police or the hotline number if you suspect human trafficking or if you suspect a minor is being exploited.
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org