The FREE Coalition to End Human Trafficking in Louisiana
Written by Laurie McGehee
The FREE Coalition to End Human Trafficking in Louisiana
Written by Laurie McGehee
Executive Director, The FREE Coalition to End Human Trafficking in Louisiana
Probation Department Manager, Caddo Parish Juvenile Services
“It feels like being in prison without the bars. It feels like being a prisoner inside your own body.” These words were spoken to me as I conversed with a survivor of human trafficking. This beautiful young woman was trafficked as a child and teenager and transitioned into adult trafficking. I’ll never forget the first time I sat down with a victim of human trafficking and heard her story. The abuse she suffered. The trauma she suffered. The multiple times she was raped and drugged, and beaten. But what hit home was that she survived all of this, escaped her trafficker, and is living a full and productive life now. That is real bravery beyond anything I can comprehend. This bravery is where the real stories are. With the boys and girls. With the women and men who have suffered the abuse and exploitation that few of us can even imagine. It is unfathomable.
How do children, youth, and adults become victims of human trafficking? Is it a lengthy process, or does it happen very quickly? There is no one answer. Children can be trafficked easily as they have no knowledge of this evil beyond what they experience through the abuse. They are innocent and unaware of the evil in this world. Most of the children I have worked with that became victims were trafficked by a parent or guardian who used them to acquire drugs or money. Rent money. Drug money, or to avoid being trafficked themselves. They have trafficked their children to pay off a debt or to avoid abuse. Older children and teenagers sometimes become victims because of childhood abuse, being trafficked as young children, or out of necessity, called survival sex. They are runaways from home. They are being used to avoid eviction or to pay bills. They are being used to make money. Family members have sexually abused many of the teenagers I have worked with, or the family members have allowed the abuse. It then becomes a natural progression into the world of sex trafficking. Many young girls and boys are groomed over time, their traffickers taking advantage of their weaknesses or deprivation. The traffickers become, in a sense, their saviors and providers. The victims become dependent on their exploiters. Then there is no way out. It becomes a cycle of power and control and abuse.
This is what the real stories look like. This is where the stories come from – the victims and survivors. They are brave and bold and can share their stories with us. To help us learn about this life that few have ever seen or experienced. Most of the time, victims do not want to talk about what is happening to them. They may not even realize they are being trafficked or exploited. They do not trust anyone outside of their circle or anyone not in their life. They have been threatened with their very lives if they speak to anyone about their circumstance. To have a victim who is currently in the life finally get to the point where they want to open up is very rare, but it is also such an opportunity to help that person get out of that life. To receive the help they need to move away from that life and learn to live a happy and productive life.
The best way to help children at risk, victims, and survivors is to educate our communities. Most people that work outside of the juvenile and criminal justice systems do not even know that human trafficking exists in our state. The mention of this topic raises eyebrows and brings expressions of disbelief. Every training about human trafficking I have been involved with involves several people who have never heard about human trafficking. They do not know what it is, how it looks, and that it exists. Those who have heard about it do not believe it exists in our state, much less in our communities. They may believe that this is something that happens in foreign countries, not here in Louisiana. Therefore, it has been the mission of The FREE Coalition to End Human Trafficking in Louisiana to bring that information to every corner of our state and to inform the public that human trafficking does exist, even in the smallest of communities. We have conducted training for law enforcement, medical schools, medical professionals, substance abuse clinics, courts, churches, counseling agencies, school personnel, civic groups, community groups, and even students of all ages. It is vital to provide this information to prevent more children, youth, and adults from falling victim to this evil.
This vital work is why the FREE Coalition plans and hosts the South-Central U.S. Human Trafficking Conference annually at Louisiana State University in Shreveport. Thanks to generous sponsors, we can offer this conference free of charge and provide CEUs to the attendees. Past sponsors include Brentwood Hospital, Willis-Knighton Health System, The Pelican Center, The Caddo Parish Commission, The Louisiana Children’s Trust Fund, The Community Foundation, The Shreveport Mayor’s Women’s Commission, The YWCA of Northwest Louisiana and The United States Attorneys’ Office-Western District of Louisiana.
The 2023 Conference held on June 15 and 16 at LSU-S was among our best. Approximately 180 persons attended the conference, including persons from the Department of Children and Family Services, the Shreveport and Bossier City Police Departments, The Caddo and Bossier Sheriff’s Departments, The Calcasieu Parish Sheriff’s Department, Counselors, Teachers, and many other service providers. Dr. Dana Hunter provided the Opening Plenary for the conference and was a remarkable speaker. She told participants about all the Statewide anti-human trafficking efforts over Governor Joh Bel Edwards’ term and First Lady Donna Edwards’ commitment to ending trafficking in Louisiana and across the Nation by engaging other First Ladies in the efforts. One of our esteemed Assistant U.S. Attorneys, Allison Duncan, opened the conference on Friday morning with her presentation regarding the prosecution of the perpetrators, something we rarely hear about. We had a diverse group of presenters on Thursday and Friday who spoke about topics ranging from “What is Human Trafficking” to “Addressing the Demand” to “Cybersex and Social Media.” Our Closing Plenary was outstanding, with U.S. District Court Judge Maurice Hicks giving an informative presentation on the prosecution of the exploiters, traffickers and what is needed to convict an adult of human trafficking, child molestation, child endangerment, and pornography. He gave several examples of cases he presided over as a Judge. The evaluations of all the sessions presented were very positive, and several conference attendees stated they could not wait for next year’s conference.
The most widely attended breakout sessions were with the Survivors of trafficking. Two very strong and very brave young women shared their stories with us. They shared their heartbreak, their trauma, and their pain. They embraced each of us with strength, courage, and hope. They never gave up. They endured the unspeakable and the unimaginable and survived. They are now not just Survivors of human trafficking; they are working to eradicate it. They are who we learn the most from. They are the ones who inspire us to continue this work. They are thriving and living and loving life. They are beautiful. They are incredible.
In addition to this year’s conference, KTAL, a local television station in Shreveport, produced an incredible documentary that aired on June 19th on KTAL and Fox Network. The documentary was entitled “Beyond the Headline: Trafficking in Our Community. I and Assistant U.S. Attorney Earl Campbell, The Gingerbread House Executive Director Jessica Milan Miller, and Care Coordinator Olivia Ferguson were interviewed for the documentary. Several local survivors of sex trafficking were also interviewed. The documentary was very well produced and directed, and was very informative and engaging. Our community also makes a significant effort to educate and inform the public about human trafficking. The more we can share these incredible stories of survival and hope, and bravery, the more we can educate and inform our community, and the more likely we are to eradicate human trafficking from our world. One Person At A Time.
About Laurie McGehee
Laurie McGehee is a thirty-eight year veteran of the Juvenile Justice System and has served the Juvenile Court for Caddo Parish in many different capacities. She is presently the Probation Department Manager for Caddo Parish Juvenile Services. She has served in this capacity for almost fifteen years. She is a nationally recognized speaker and trainer in Restorative and Evidence Based Probation, Human Trafficking, Trauma and Adolescent Development. She has been instrumental in developing many of the Court’s specialized programs such as Juvenile Drug Court and Mental Health Court. She developed the first Multi-disciplinary Team and Specialized Intensive Probation Unit (SIU) in the State of Louisiana to address human trafficking with Court involved youth. The Multi-disciplinary Team has been recognized by the National Association of County Officials (NACo) and by the Caddo Parish Commission for their preventative work in human trafficking. She also developed the first Specialized Court for victims of human trafficking called STAR Court. Laurie is a Certified Court Administrator and Trainer for Probation Officers through the National Juvenile Court Services Association and the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges. She serves as Secretary for the Board of Directors for Volunteers for Youth Justice and serves on Governor John Bel Edwards’ Human Trafficking Commission and Advisory Council. In 2008, she was the first recipient of the YWCA Women Who Mean Business Award and in 2014, she received the State of Louisiana Don E. Wydra Memorial Award for Outstanding Contribution to Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. She was also just recently inducted into Bossier City’s Bossier High School Hall of Fame. Laurie lives and works in Shreveport, Louisiana. She is the proud Mom of one son, Corey, and daughter-in-law, Payton, the proud grandmother of grandson, Copper and granddaughter, Colette and grand dogs Roux and Gidget.