By Nick BeJeaux
While awareness of sex trafficking in Baton Rouge has grown tremendously within the last year, both law enforcement and the community at large are still learning to recognize it, especially when it come to children.
Arrests related to child sex abuse and the circulation of child pornography are nearly a daily occurrence. While this problem is nothing new, attitudes toward the crime by the victims and the community are changing for the better.
“It’s always been happening, and it’s not happening more than it used to. What’s different is that more people are willing to come forward and talk about it,” said Rachael Hebert, director of Sexual Trauma Awareness and Response (STAR), a service and advocacy center for survivors of rape in the greater Baton Rouge Area. “If you look at the national estimates, one in ten children suffer some form of sexual abuse, whether it’s sexual exploitation through trafficking or pornography, rape, or molestation. There’s a lot of things that fall under the umbrella of sexual abuse.”
Public awareness of human sex trafficking has certainly increased since 2013 – when law enforcement began recognizing recording statistics on traffickers and victims. Still, Baton Rouge has a lot of work ahead before the problem is under control.
“In general is a very confusing topic. It sort of has become a new buzzword for something we knew was going on for a long time,” said Hebert. “The definition of trafficking is basically moving one person from another location to another against their will for labor, sex, etc and someone else is getting paid for them.”
However, as Hebert pointed out, when children become involved and already complicated issue becomes even more complicated.
“With children, it’s a little bit different,” she said. “We’re starting to see activities that could legally be called trafficking, but don’t recognize it as such.”
Hebert cited an incident here in Baton Rouge where a woman who was above the age of consent but mentally impaired (therefore she could not legally consent to sex) was being trafficked by her own father; he was allowing the family’s priest to assault her. But a child does not need to be trafficked by a parent or a criminal to be sexually abused.
“What we see mostly at STAR are adults who were abused as children,” said Hebert. “As youth, they were violated sexually and even if they did go to someone and tell them what happened no one believed them. They’re dealing with the adverse health consequences years later – finally getting therapy and working through what happened to them as a child.”
According to Hebert, STAR is also seeing a trend where adult victims of rape are likely to have been sexually abused as children.
“It for a lot of reasons,” she said. “If you’ve been violated you’re already vulnerable to abuse and you have lower self esteem and risky health behaviors. Children become more promiscuous and that’s something that people don’t really understand, but it’s about taking control over their own body. It’s like PTSD – in fact most survivor have diagnosable PTSD.”
In the digital age, criminals are becoming smarter and sneakier than law enforcement. The Internet and smart phones have become the default weapons of predators and, so far, the law is struggling to catch up with them.
“No one is adapting fast enough, even Legally,” said Hebert. “Sexting has become a hot topic and some people think that it’s a form of child pornography – it is. Some say it’s just kids not knowing enough about boundaries, but others are a predator grooming a child. The laws need to catch up with the crime.”
Herbert and STAR have been pushing for teaching body autonomy to children so that they know what is an appropriate level of contact with a friend, family member and strangers. However, the real challenge is educating adults.
“What we as a community have not talked about enough is adult education – how adults can responsibly react to child sexual abuse,” she said. “We do know that the majority of children either outright talk about abuse or they indirectly talk about it. They may not want to go to so-and-so’s house, and that’s a red flag. You as a parent need to ask why they don’t want to go there and why they don’t want to be around someone.”
There is a misconception that rapists and child molesters are very aggressive monsters, but they’re actually very manipulative and patient monsters that groom children for weeks and even years before victimizing them. They use gifts and tell the child they love them; they’re gaining the trust of not only the child but also the parents in some cases.
“The most important thing is understanding the prevalence and recognizing the possibility. When non-offending adults think about child sex abuse, they think ‘not my child or not someone’ kid that I know said Hebert. “Even further from their mind is that they know someone who is abusing a child.
“When the Scott Rogers thing happened, everyone was like ‘ wait, how did this happen? We didn’t even know!’ The only difference between a regular person and a child abuser is that they abuse children. They don’t look different, act different, sound different – they’re very deceptive. Adults need to be aware of who wants to be alone with their children, but also be open to the possibility that it could happen to there kids and that goes a long way.”
For more information on preventing child sexual abuse, visit www.brstar.org.