A parent never thinks they would one day have to rescue their young daughter from a sex trafficker, but that’s exactly what Juanita Carruth, her husband, and cousins had to do.
After searching several days for their daughter who was a habitual runaway, Carruth said they received a call from person who had “sold” her daughter to a local pimp and demanded more than $10,000 for the teen to be returned.
“At that point I knew they were trafficking my daughter,” said Carruth who later found out that the caller was a well-known sex worker in New Orleans. For days the parents were taunted on social media and through text messages, until her father was able to retrieve her.
“Even with a loving, two-parent home (and) even though we lived in the suburbs of New Orleans, my daughter became a victim. It made me felt like a failure that I could not protect her,” Carruth admitted.
Today, Carruth shares her family’s story to help law enforcement officials and parents do a better job protecting children who can be preyed on and pulled into sex slavery.
According to the national Human Trafficking Hotline, 71 cases of human trafficking have been reported in Louisiana since January. Although that number has the state ranking 22nd in the national, Louisiana received an A grade in enforcing human trafficking from Shared Hope International in 2018. (Read More juvenile human trafficking victims identified in Louisiana)
With changes to policy, officials with the Governor’s Office said combating human trafficking is a more coordinated national, state, and local effort.
“We are starting to win,” said Dana Hunter, Ph.D, executive director of the Children’s Cabinet. “We are becoming more aware and more educated. Our law enforcement, hospitals, parents, everyone. We are being vigilant.”
For several weeks, The Drum staff has collected social media posts that alerted followers of suspicious activities.
One post shared photos of a white van and truck that circled the neighborhood near children’s bus stops after changing license plates. Another shared links and photos believed to belong to recruiters and people who would track the whereabouts of potential victims.
Family and friends of Nahendra Faye Davis, 35, of Baker, La., have shared photos, QR codes, and posted billboards in Baton Rouge to help find the missing mother of two.
Hunter said posts like these are helpful and should be shared with law enforcement. “We can not under-estimate the power of educating our families that these predators and situations are out there.”
Families often have the fear that their missing loved ones will be ignored especially if the missing person is a runaway. But, with the knowledge that traffickers go after runaways, people who are homeless, and those showing low self-esteem or lack of love, law enforcement and social service providers are being trained to recognize the connection between trafficking and reports of missing persons and runaways.
Last month, the FBI released the age progression photo of Keiosha Marie Felix who went missing, April 20, 2012 at the age of 15. At the time, she was identified as a runaway later reclassified as an endangered missing person. Finding Felix is a joint investigation by the FBI, New Orleans Division, Lafayette Resident Agency, the Louisiana State Police, the Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Department and the Duson Police Department. She is believed to be in the Baton Rouge area and her photo has appeared on coupon mailers in the city.
Law enforcement are not treating these cases as just kidnappings or runaways. The change in federal law indicates that if sex is involved, it is human trafficking, Hunter said.
Trafficking a minor under 21 years of age is prohibited without regard to whether force, fraud, or coercion was used to cause the minor to engage in commercial sex acts.
“We are becoming more aware and educating everyone on human trafficking and putting resources into protecting and recovering victims,” she said.
Her office recently secured a $1.2 million grant to combat human trafficking statewide. Louisiana is the seventh state to be granted the award.
“We have leadership at the highest level (in Governor Edwards and State Senator Ronnie Johns) who makes this a priority. This is an issue Louisiana has been very progressive on,” said Hunter.
The state is one of only 16 states that require human trafficking training that includes child trafficking. The grant will fund multi-agency training and will allow the state to staff an expert coordinator in each region for providers to centralize responses to these crimes.
Sex traffickers can get up to 20 years in jail and be charged with federally and locally with crimes ranging from kidnapping to racketeering.images
As of press time, 5,147 cases were reported to the national Human Trafficking Hotline so far this year. Last year, 8,759 human trafficking cases were reported. The goal is for cases to lead to arrests and convictions. “It is very difficult to convict predators. Oftentimes victims recant and witnesses won’t take a stand. Last year, there was only one conviction,” she said.
As for Carruth, she said it is time for the community to take care of one another. “There is a trending behavior of people–especially kids–looking for a certain type of love to fit in that they are being so easily manipulated. In schools, the babies are recruiting babies. It’s an epidemic where girls are going missing every week. We all see it. Some of these girls and women are being tattooed and branded. It needs to be us taking care of us.”
By Candace J. Semien
Jozef Syndicate reporter