SHREVEPORT, LA (KSLA) - It's a taboo topic that can make the hairs stand on the back of parents' necks, but still some believe their child could never become the victim of human trafficking.
Human trafficking and molestation have proven to be gateways into prostitution and yes, there is a difference.
When a child is under the age of 18 and is forced to have sex for money, that child becomes a victim, not a willing participant. It turns out, the Shreveport-Bossier City area sees many victims and one of the key factors could be location.
Thelma Stewart, a victim of human trafficking, says her childhood didn't consist of visits to the park or family pictures but sexual, physical and emotional abuse. When she decided to stand up for herself, she was put out of the house at just 11 years old. Thelma was alone and unwanted, making her the perfect target for sex traffickers.
"She told me about this big old house and all of these other little girls," says Thelma. "I wasn't the youngest I had a friend there. Her name was Crystal, she was 9 years old. She didn't make it out."
Thelma says she made it out of the trafficking house she referred to as "The Agency" thanks to dark luck.
"The last guy who rented me, he ended up overdosing, so I ended up busting a window out and leaving," says Thelma. "For the next year and half, I was in a mental institution when I was found wandering the streets. I was 13 years old."
Thelma's childhood trauma would lead to her addiction to heroin. For work, she did the only thing she knew to do: have sex for money. Unfortunately, Thelma's case isn't so uncommon. Prostitution and sex trafficking isn't as glamorous as you see in Hollywood films like "Pretty Woman" or television shows like "The Client List," and unlike the movie "Taken," it isn't just happening overseas. In Thelma's case, it was happening in Houston, Texas.
Laurie McGeehee hears stories like Thelma's all too often. She says a number of juveniles, mostly runaways, that come into the Caddo Detention Center have fallen victim to sex trafficking.
"They would look malnourished to us, a lot of them would have an STD (sexually-transmitted disease) or had gone without sleep," says Laurie. "They get recruited based on what their needs are. If they are a runaway they are automatically in survival mode, so they need food, shelter, clothes, a place to stay and they need to be safe."
According to Laurie, there is no discrimination when it comes to recruitment. As we saw in Thelma's case, men and women recruit for sex trafficking. Some young girls have also been known to be trafficked by their own family members, which usually begins with a pattern of molestation in the home.
Jessica Miller, Executive Director at the Gingerbread House, says they serve up to 54 new children every month who have been molested or trafficked in the Shreveport area which totals up to about 650 for the year. In order to put the abusers behind bars, the Gingerbread House conducts forensic interviews to help these victims with their testimony before it's too late.
"The average starting age of a 'prostitute,' as they would like to call it is 12. That is a child who is a victim of a crime," says Miller. "That is not a child who makes the choice to live that lifestyle. Last year in 2014 we served 28 victims of child trafficking right here in our community. It's slavery on our very own soil."
Both Jessica and Laurie say most women who are prostituted have suffered from some sort of sexual abuse in their childhood which means those 650 children each year who are sent to the Gingerbread House risk being swept into human trafficking and inevitably prostitution.
The reason it's happening in Shreveport and Bossier City could have a lot to do with location.
FBI Special Agent Chris Cantrell says the proximity of Shreveport to I-20 and the I-49 corridors make the area a perfect target for sex traffickers and pimps.
"Most of our arrests are those individuals that are transporting the victims from Dallas to Atlanta and maybe north to New York or vice versa," says Cantrell.
He recently headed up Operation Cross Country, a joint national operation conducted for the past few years by local law enforcement and the FBI to arrest pimps and prostitutes and to rescue children. This year, that sting led to the recovery of 149 children nationwide, including 2 in Shreveport. He says each year gets more difficult since the game of "sex for sale" has changed and pimps and traffickers are making their deals online, making it difficult for the FBI to track them all.
"It has now been involved into a larger area of concern using the internet, social media," says Cantrell. "We have found that it's now children of younger ages and it's a challenge because there are a variety of sites. It has become a venue subject to criminals to use the social sites to do recruitment."
When children are rescued from sex trafficking, organizations like the Gingerbread house and a new response team at the Caddo Juvenile Detention Center work to get them help in hopes of reversing the damage already done by their abusers.
For those who feel they are too far gone into this lifestyle, there are places like Purchased. Founder Cassie Hammet says it is a ministry that helps to re-teach women who have lived their lives in prostitution how to get off the streets and into legitimate employment. It also offers them medical care and helps them to dig deep to the roots of their problems.
"The reality is they're broken on every level most of the time," says Hammet. "It's hard. It's hard for them to leave the sex industry and what we want to be is a program that acknowledges that it's hard."
Thelma started the program 2 months ago, hoping to graduate and become a voice of recovery for women forced into this life. She hopes to one day return to the very streets that caused her so much pain, and "be one of those that rescues that little girl on the other side of that door. I would love to be."
If you have a suspicion that a minor is being sexually abused, you can call your local police or the Gingerbread House at 318-674-2900. If you know a woman who needs help to get out of the sex industry, you can visit the PURCHASED website.