Louisiana is getting some federal help in its fight against the nation’s fastest-growing criminal industry: human trafficking.
The U.S. Department of Justice granted the state $1.2 million to fund the Louisiana Child Trafficking Collaborative, Gov. John Bel Edwards announced Wednesday. The program will identify and build policies aimed to stop trafficking, and it could serve as a model for other states.
“I can’t sit here and tell you that Louisiana has a bigger problem than other states our size,” Edwards told a crowd of children’s advocates. “But we know we have a problem that is too big.”
Human trafficking has been reported more frequently in Louisiana of late. The state’s Department of Children and Family Services counted 681 confirmed or suspected trafficking victims in 2017, a 52 percent jump since 2016. (At least 641 were tied to sex trafficking, while 29 were sex and labor trafficking victims.)
Cases involving children have risen particularly high, according to DCFS. The agency reported 356 youth victims in 2017, a 77 percent increase from the previous year. At least 72 sex trafficking victims reported were ages 12 or younger.
Edwards noted that Louisiana’s status as a tourist destination warrants a particular urgency against trafficking. Highly populated zones often become prime targets for traffickers.
“It could be a Super Bowl, NBA All-Star Game or Mardi Gras,” he said. “When you have people coming in from around the country to Louisiana, there are folks who bring in sex trafficking victims to service those folks. We have to do more.”
“It’s not always pleasant to be a part of this process,” First Lady Donna Edwards said. “But gosh, we have to do this. We have to make a difference.”
Louisiana is the only state to get the federal grant this year, and it is one of only seven recipients since 2015.
Shared Hope International, an anti-trafficking advocacy group, ranked Louisiana’s anti-trafficking laws number-one in the nation in 2016.
“We’re doing more than anybody in identifying and reporting these victims,” Gov. Edwards said. “That’s one of the reasons we’re getting this attention.”
The funds will be implemented over a three-year stretch, while the Governor’s Children’s Cabinet will oversee the new child trafficking collaborative.
“This is a message to the pimps, child traffickers and exploiters,” said Dr. Dana Hunter, executive director of the Governor’s Children’s Cabinet. “You cannot come here and take advantage of our children, our adults, our aunts, uncles, you name it. That’s what we’re saying here today.”