Q&A: Dana Hunter, Governor’s Office of Human Trafficking Prevention
January is Human Trafficking Awareness Month, and Louisiana is marking the occasion with a renewed emphasis on helping survivors, providing trauma-informed training to police, and raising public awareness around the issue.
In 2021, the Louisiana Legislature agreed to fund Gov. John Bel Edwards’ new Office of Human Trafficking Prevention. Dana Hunter was picked as its first executive director in July of that year after spending more than four years as leader of the governor’s Children’s Cabinet, where trafficking was part of its mission
The Illuminator spoke Friday with Hunter to learn what progress has been made in the fight against trafficking – and where there’s still work to be done. The conversation has been edited for clarity.
What have you found to be the most significant obstacle to curbing human trafficking in Louisiana?
Getting victims to come forth to disclose that they are victims. We’re learning more and learning from victims who don’t know that they are a victim of human trafficking. Some of them have been told and coerced, psychologically, that “you’re a prostitute “or “you’re my girlfriend” or lover in a sense, and they’re being forced to do criminal activity not knowing that they’re a victim.
(We’re) helping victims to understand this is not the norm, this is not what this should look like for you, you are actually a victim, and getting them to come forth. Some of them don’t have their basic needs and necessities met, some of them lack food, clothing, shelter, are homeless or just lack that love.
They kind of gravitate towards some of these criminals who capitalize on their desire or their need for love … One of the things we’re really trying to do is educate young people and adults on what this looks like – because you may actually be a victim – and then the power of disclosure. Once you come forward, there are resources and people who will gather around and help them transition to healing and recovery.
What are you doing to address the discomfort level with a survivor coming forward and feeling like they will get help, they will be safe? Because basically, you’re working against brainwashing.
Absolutely. We have over 700 agencies within our network, including law enforcement. Over the last year – really even prior to – we’ve been working with agencies on delivering trauma-informed services and having a trauma-informed approach, helping victims to know that one, it’s not you. Something has happened to you.
Not using demeaning language, criminalizing the victim or making them feel like it was their fault. All of those strategies to help victims feel more comfortable as they matriculate through our coordinated system of care.
Because we’ve talked to victims who have said, “I felt demeaned when I came in touch with law enforcement or with this agency. They treated me like this, or they made me feel like it was my fault.” So we’re really just training folks on what a trauma-informed approach looks like.
Decriminalization goes hand in hand with how law enforcement treats trafficking survivors. What progress has been made around the state with law enforcement recognizing when they have a victim – and not treating them like another offender?
Thankfully, through our federal funding from the Office for Victims of Crime, we’ve been able to have dedicated staff in our state. … Our regional coordinators, they do training throughout the state specific to their region.
In one area, we have had a regional coordinator who trained law enforcement. Not long after that, law enforcement did a sting operation at an illicit massage parlor and instead of arresting the victims – there were eight victims involved – they referred them to the local child advocacy center and to the local resources for services.
That’s one example of how training can really help open the eyes of our law enforcement officials to say even though this looks like criminal activity, there may be victims on the inside of this, and let’s not arrest them, let’s dig further and possibly refer to services.
You brought up massage parlors, which survivor advocates tell us are difficulty to police to prevent trafficking. What does that situation look like in Louisiana?
I actually just got back from an (human trafficking in) illicit massage conference, a national event. There are over 13,000 illicit massage parlors in the United States. Here in Louisiana, we have 162. As a whole in the country, over 30,000 individuals are trapped into this life, experiencing sex trafficking through the illicit massage industry.
What we learned was that these victims in these illicit massage parlors are servicing more than 40 people a day – one person servicing 40 people a day. They’re non-English speaking often, so pimps and exploiters are really bussing and shipping people in to support their business. They are profiting off these vulnerable people who they know don’t speak the language, they don’t have citizenship, and they’re using these fear tactics to keep them in this life of bondage and exploitation.
Is Louisiana more of a destination or essentially a port of entry when it comes to human trafficking at illicit massage parlors?
I think we can envision Louisiana as both. There are times that were a pass-through because of the interstate corridors, and there are also times that we are can be considered a hub. We have New Orleans, and also it’s important to know we have rural areas where traffickers can hide out and go years before they are discovered.
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Someone might be living next door to a trafficker and not even realize it.
Yes. There was a recent case in Texas where twins were being held captive in their own home, in handcuffs. These two young children were being held in handcuffs, denied food for an extended period of time, by their mother and the mother’s boyfriend,
They were eventually able to escape. They went knocking on doors saying “please help” in the middle of the night, which of course, can seem very sketchy. But it was a real legit situation of right next door in a decent neighborhood. There were children, they’re being held captive.
We like to educate our children. We’re now working with a Rotary Club and the DARE program to go into schools, and to help children know what safe relationships, healthy relationships look like, and what it doesn’t look like, so that if they’re experiencing something right there in their own home, they can understand that this is not the norm, and they can know how to report it.
Has there been acceptance toward that type of education at the local school district level, given that there is some resistance to sex education and such?
We knew that there will be resistance to just try and straight up get this information into the schools, so we’ve used creative and innovative means to try and go about it. That’s why we’re working with our DARE program and trying to get some of this information into their existing curriculum. The Rotary Club already has students in clubs in the schools. Ww;ew trying to really work with what we already have, and educate kids.
We spent a lot of time the past year reporting on (the Department of Children and Family Services) having trouble hiring people to fill very critical roles. Has this lack of staffing, shortages in law enforcement or any social service impacted your ability to either assist survivors or educate police or the public?
Yes, absolutely. We’ve heard from law enforcement about the resources that it takes to actually help them investigate these cases, the length of time, finding sufficient evidence to try and get a prosecution on these cases. Agencies saying we don’t have dedicated staff to really devote time to these cases.
When we think about human trafficking, our numbers and data show us that we had 932 victims last year. Across the state, if we divided it up into nine (public health) regions, that’s 100 victims per area. you get what I’m saying. Some agencies saying, “Look, I can’t dedicate our staff and resources to investigate two cases or three or four cases, but we are training them and supporting them in every way that we can to say, “Look, you know, the one is very important.”
The legislature seems to have been pretty amenable to providing resources to combat human trafficking. Does the administration plan to ask for anything specific in this year’s legislative session?
Yes, our Human Trafficking Prevention Commission, which is broken up into sub committees, they have worked closely with members of the legislature.
A few of the recommendations of the commission are to support the Justice for Survivors Act. That’s a proposal to expand justifications, defenses available to survivors of human trafficking, sex abuse, intimate partner violence, to allow expert testimony, to communicate coercion and control, all of these things.
We also want to find financial support for Louisiana State Police to expand their regional investigative unit for human trafficking. We really want to see LSP have more investigators with experience in human trafficking, and we know that that’s going to cost additional dollars.
Then also labor trafficking, we are making a recommendation to our legislature that will strengthen protections against an HR provider reporting mechanism for labor trafficking in state contracts.
(For example), the state may offer or FEMA may offer a contract after a disaster occurs, and they’re working with a construction company. We want to make sure there are protections in that contract that make sure that that company is not soliciting victims or soliciting individuals to exploit them through that work.
A new law that took effect on Jan. 1 adds broader reporting requirements when a child trafficking survivor is outside the care of a guardian or parent. Explain how that assists with your mission.
We’re actually working closely with DCFS on that. One of the things that we recognize when young people are falling through the cracks, there’s nowhere to report. If there’s nowhere to report and no culpability, where do they go? Who’s gonna take responsibility for this?
So we’re creating protocols. We’ve actually created a referral form that will be used throughout the state, that state police can use, that all of our entities can use, so that if DCFS identifies a young person, and there’s no parental culpability there, there’s a process in place now where they will refer that young person to Louisiana State Police, who will then be responsible for that investigation, and they will also refer that person to care coordination that did not exist (previously) in our state.
We are building a care model, including all the right networks and an advocate who will be available 24/7 for that victim upon identification.
We’re very proud of the progress that we’re making here in our state. I like to tell people, three to four years ago, none of this existed here in Louisiana.
I’ve heard the availability of shelters and safe houses – some place to help survivors escape the life of trafficking – is limited. What availability is there, especially for youth survivors.
You hit the nail on the head. We are strapped for housing resources. They’re virtually nonexistent because of the need. We are working closely with our external partners that have housing availability.
But there are some areas in this state that are looking at creating drop-in shelters. That’s a model that we find in Texas and other places that has been effective. In Alexandria, I think they’re looking at possibly establishing a drop-in shelter.
In New Orleans, they are getting ready to have a grand opening for their emergency response center and emergency shelter. They partnered with LCMC, and they will have availability to house more survivors.
We’re making progress, but of course it takes an exorbitant amount of resources to run these shelters. They have to be 24/7, so do all the protections that are needed. All of that has to be taken into consideration, and so that’s still an area of need here in our state.
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