The problem is global. The impact devastating. But awareness of sex trafficking – especially the sale of young girls – is expanding dramatically, drawing the attention of social service agencies as well as law enforcement.
New Orleans, a tourist town with a long history of prostitution, has become a hub for this dark and devastating underground network.
On just about any night along Bourbon Street and other pockets of the French Quarter, street hookers ply their trade in plain sight. Chef Menteur Highway and Tulane Avenue also serve as “tracks” for sex workers.
What is not so obvious are the pimps – criminal sex traffickers controlling the women through force or coercion – lurking nearby.
Even more nefarious – and the typical venue for underage girls being criminally exploited – are online ads found on websites such as Backpage.com. While many of the posts advertise young women who are 18, the age of consent, their ages often fall well short of that.
12 News' sister station WWL-TV obtained harrowing first-hand accounts from three victims who are now recovering from their trauma at counseling shelters in New Orleans.
All of the women were trafficked by men, two as minors.
Samantha, 20, was recruited by a girlfriend into a sex ring in Florida at the age of 15. She was being raised in a stable home by a single mom, but her rebellious streak led her to experiment with drugs and hang out with a fast crowd.
That crowd included an older girl who Samantha admired, a girl who eventually introduced Samantha to a pimp and the world of sex trafficking.
“I did a date,” Samantha said. “Which is what we call a date, having sex for money. And I didn't find it to be, like, wrong. I looked up to that girl. You know, like anything she did, she was like a big sister to me. And I wanted to be like her. And I just wanted to get in where I fit in.”
At first, the trafficker lured Samantha with flattery and gifts.
“He liked me. He thought I was pretty,” she said.
But the man was always quick to take the money that Samantha was being paid by customers, and gradually she realized she was trapped.
When she tried to escape, he turned violent.
“He's choked me out to where I wasn't able to breath and I've passed out from it,” she said. “He made me strip as he beat me. And he started yelling at me. And he kept saying he wanted to see my blood all over the floor…I normally just try to fight back. But at that moment, I couldn't fight back. And I thought to myself: Today's the day I'm going to die.”
Serenity, 19, grew up in foster homes in North Louisiana. She was convinced by her best friend to come to New Orleans and start a fun new life.
Instead, that girl's boyfriend turned out to be a pimp, posting the girl’s pictures online and forcing them to turn tricks in motel rooms.
Like Samantha, Serenity’s trafficker used sweet talk and trinkets to reel her into the lifestyle.
“Yeah, they'll buy you stuff like hair, get your nails did, buy you clothes and stuff like that,” she said.
He tried to justify selling her body.
“They turn it around to like, you're having sex anyway so you might as well get some money while you're doing it,” she said.
Then, at various times, Serenity witnessed the trafficker lash out at her friend, sometimes beating her. She wanted to escape, but she was trapped: She was homeless, penniless and still loyal to her friend.
“When you're in a human trafficking situation, it's not something that you just get over. You know? It's just something that you can let go and be like, I don't do it no more. That's all I knew to do. To feed myself, to take care of myself, to do anything for myself. It's just hard to get over,” Serenity said.
Things got worse, with Serenity eventually becoming the subject of the trafficker’s angry outbursts.
She survived by turning passive.
“I was quiet the whole time because I didn't want to get killed.”
But her thoughts were much more desperate.
“It was times I thought about he was sleeping in the other bed, I should get up and just start stabbing him,” she said.
Unlike Samantha and Serenity, Mandy was older she when was traded for sex.
The 55-year-old mother of two was the victim of two abusive husbands, but the beatings weren't the worst part. Each husband scored drugs by forcing Mandy to have sex with dealers.
She described one especially vicious night in which she was traded for crystal meth.
“It was brutal. It was a long, hard night. There's nothing like begging a stranger for your life. There's nothing like sex at the end of a nine-millimeter.”
It was almost Mandy's last night on earth.
“I went into the bathroom and got a handful of razor blades and proceeded to put a little artwork here on both of my arms,” Mandy said, showing a criss-cross of scars across both of her forearms.
Once victims, these three women are survivors of sex trafficking.
Nineteen-year-old Jasilas Wright never reached survivor status.
Wright was a stripper on Bourbon Street. Her trafficker, Adam Littleton, is now serving a life sentence for her murder. Wright was killed in June 2015 when she tumbled from Middleton's car on I-10 in Metairie.
Life after trafficking
As prevalent as the problem has become in the metro area, New Orleans has become a leader in providing outreach and shelter for survivors.
Samantha and Mandy are two of eight women living at Eden House, a recovery program for survivors. Samantha arrived as a result of a plea bargain after her trafficker’s sex ring was brought down by federal authorities.
Mandy was referred after a stay in a New Orleans drug rehabilitation center.
Kara van der Karr, an attorney and former U.S. diplomat, opened Eden House about six years ago after seeing the horrors of sex trafficking in Jamaica and other places around the world.
It now serves as the only full-time residence for adult survivors of human trafficking in the state. Samantha, Mandy and six other women spend months at the well-appointed home getting counseling, learning life skills and, eventually, getting jobs and re-integrating into the community.
Van der Karr said she founded the program after she saw, first-hand, the devastating psychological after-effects of sex trafficking.
“Once you get into the life, there's almost no way out. Usually the two ways out are jail and death,” she said. “Now, gradually, we’re seeing a lot more understanding of the depths of the issue.
Susanne Dietzel is the executive director of Eden House. Dietzel spent most of her career in academia, specializing in women’s studies. Now she applies her theoretical training to women who need help.
“Until I came here, I did not fully understand and feel and witness the pain that this form of violence creates,” Dietzel said. “I have the privilege of seeing someone who might come in as a victim, but leave our house as an empowered survivor.”
Another local shelter and counseling program for young sex trafficking victims Covenant House. Serenity arrived there after being arrested following a motel sting operation.
Sheri Lochridge, Covenant House’s human trafficking case manager, rescued Serenity from a New Orleans police precinct. Serenity was given a choice: jail or the shelter.
“It's huge. It's here. It's here in our city. We see it every day,” Lochridge said. “We go to the strip clubs. We go to the motels. We go to Chef Menteur Highway, Dowman, Tulane Avenue, Bourbon Street. All the tracks.”
“Agencies like ourselves are the ones helping them pick up the pieces and rebuild their lives,” she said.
Lochridge, a graduate of Covenant House, now counsels 134 victims of human trafficking.
In addition to helping victims, the social service agencies are teaming up with law enforcement to increase awareness of the problems and shift the police focus to the traffickers instead of the victims.
Covenant House recently received a federal grant to assemble the Greater New Orleans Human Trafficking Task Force. Women who were once arrested for prostitution are now being helped, and helping to make cases against their traffickers.
The campaign has made a sizable impact.
Over the past 10 years, Louisiana’s human trafficking laws have been strengthened and are now considered some of the strongest in the nation.
Weak laws against pandering have been strengthened into tough laws against human trafficking, even tougher in the case of child sex trafficking, with the law stating that “consent of the minor shall not be a defense,” nor is “lack of knowledge of the victim’s age.”
The anti-trafficking organization Shared Hope International gives the state an "A" grade on its reforms.
Beyond the laws that have turned trafficking victims from being targeted as prostitutes to being helped victims, Mandy said the growing awareness of the problem has provided her and other women with something that goes beyond any criminal statute: the love and support to begin healing.
“This has totally changed my life. The staff is amazing,” Mandy said. “When a person is taken totally apart by another person, it's so hard to heal. We're all coming back, literally, from the dead. Literally from the dead.”
If you see something or someone suspicious, call the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children at 1-800-THE-LOST. Tips are anonymous.