I was invited to participate virtually in the Science and Ethics of Happiness workshop on “Blessed are the Poor in Spirit” this month. This workshop was hosted by the Pontifical Academy of Science and Social Sciences at the Vatican in Rome.
A special thank you to Monsignor Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo for the personal invitation and the work he has been doing over the last few decades through this Academy. Also, I want to acknowledge the great work of Jeffrey Sachs throughout his professional career and his leadership through this Academy.
In 2016, my husband John Bel Edwards and I were blessed to become Governor and First Lady of Louisiana. As pro-life/whole-life Democrats, we are considered an oddity in politics. Some have used the word unicorn in their descriptions. We hit the ground running in 2016 to address the many problems, including poverty, which has been a long-standing issue in our state, poor education and health outcomes, and tackling a historic budget deficit of nearly two billion dollars that threatened critical state services.
My husband signed an executive order expanding Medicaid for the working poor on his first day of office. Today, more than 680,000 Louisianans now have health insurance who were unable to afford it before. In addition, we also have the lowest percentage of uninsured Louisianans in our state’s history because of the expansion of Medicaid.
The issue of human sex trafficking (HST) was not on my radar, but it quickly came to the forefront as a pressing matter that needed attention in our state. You see, before this position, I had never heard of this type of crime. I soon came to understand that it existed right in front of me – in front of us all.
Many of you may know or have heard of Sister Eugenia Bonetti from Rome. She has been working in this space for decades. Through her work, along with the work of Father Jeff Bayhi and the Hospitaler Sisters of Mercy, I came to be involved in the effort to end human sex trafficking.
In January of 2017, we traveled to Rome and met with Sister Bonetti to learn even more about this crime and to meet others who were working hard to end trafficking. We met women from all walks of life but ended up in the same situation due to these traffickers. So, my journey of understanding began at this point.
In all sincerity, I was reluctant to take on the issue of human sex trafficking at first. It was tough to hear the stories of adults and especially victimized children. I didn’t want to listen to the horror of this terrible crime happening across our world, including Louisiana.
But I listened to those who have been on the front lines and prayed for the victims of this heinous crime. As a practicing Catholic trying to live out my faith, I accepted the calling to use my platform and leverage my leadership role as the First Lady to raise awareness about this serious crime.
We soon learned there is a real connection between poverty and human sex trafficking. That’s why we have focused our efforts on helping foster youth establish permanent relationships. One major step we have taken is extending foster care to 21 years of age. The goal is to surround foster youth with the resources and support that they need to exit foster care as stable, confident adults with relationships they can continue to rely on. Currently, there are 233 youth in our Extended Foster Care Program.
Children in foster care are at greater risk of being victimized by human sex trafficking. According to the National Foster Youth Institute, it’s estimated that 60 percent of child sex trafficking victims have a history in the child welfare system. Human traffickers will prey on the most vulnerable individuals, which is why foster children have a greater risk of becoming victims than those who aren’t in the system.
On any given day in Louisiana, we have an average of over 4,000 children in our foster care system. Since 2016, we have had a record number of over 4,000 foster children who have found their forever homes. Approximately 66 percent of children were reunited with their biological families once their relatives received counseling and support to create loving, nurturing, and safe environments.