It’s hard to see Baton Rouge’s problem with human trafficking when all you have are inconsistent and intangible statistics without a face to offer perspective.
Meet Constance. Of course, that’s not her real name, but a moniker given to her by Trafficking Hope in BR to protect her from the men who enslaved her for sex — men who still walk free. Constance is originally from Mississippi and was kidnapped at a young age — sold back and forth across the Gulf Coast by four traffickers over the course of a decade. She is scarred physically and emotionally— she even bares the tattoos marking her as a specific trafficker’s “merchandise.” After being rescued in Alabama, Constance was brought again to Baton Rouge. This time, she did so willingly.
Constance is currently living in a Hope House, one of many initiatives part of TH and one of the only safe havens for victims of trafficking. It took time, but Constance eventually gathered the courage to share her story. After surviving 10 years of abuse, she now faces the challenge of rebuilding the life that was taken from her and getting used to freedom.
“It may sound strange, but it’s nice to look at the window and see the scenery,” she said. “I once commented on how pretty the scenery was and had to get in the trunk.”
The people that enslaved her kept complete control over her at all times and hurt her for the slightest unintended offenses.
“I am learning to make eye contact in here… Out there it wasn’t allowed, but in here it is a sign of respect,” Constance said. “I can’t believe that there are people here who want to help me.”
When she was brought to Hope House, Constance suffered from severe neglect. A dentist donated time and services, totaling over $30,000 worth of work on her teeth. When she heard about the dentist, she said, “You mean I can smile again?”
Constance is one of 34 women that have been helped by Hope House since September of 2013. This is one statistic TH has recorded themselves, but so far no one knows for sure just how many people are Trafficked through Baton Rouge.
“The reason no one has exact numbers is because human trafficking was not tracked by authorities until early 2013,” said Emily Morrow Chenevert, national awareness coordinator for TH. “In the past, victims were treated as criminals and called prostitutes or child prostitutes.”
However, a change in perception shows that these criminals are in fact victims themselves.
“There’s no such thing as a child prostitute and while some women are on the streets willingly, many have been coerced into being a sex worker. Now, we have an educated police force tackling this problem — we should have a consistent statistic for Baton Rouge and New Orleans by the end of this year.”
Authorities are not the only ones who need education in the realm of modern slavery. When you think human trafficking, you likely think of the action thriller “Taken” starring Liam Neeson. While it’s true women, men and children are kidnapped and enslaved while travelling abroad, the horrifying reality is that you can be trafficked out of your own home.
“The youngest victim we’ve ever rescued in Baton Rouge was six and she was being sold out of her own home by family,” Chenevert said. “Family can easily control these victims into doing what they want.”
Chenevert and her organization estimate that human trafficking worldwide is an approximately $32 billion industry — as long as there is demand and profit it will continue.
“They’re mobile, organized and smart,” Chenevert said. “The awareness of what’s going on and how these criminals work has only just begun.”