Political Horizons: Focus should be on victim

Louisiana legislators ought to hear what Tonja Myles has to say.

Since the United Nations started its campaign to curb the sex slave trade, politicians of all stripes have been talking about protecting the children, who they say are the most vulnerable victims of human trafficking. Most of the effort, however, has gone toward throwing offenders in jail.

In Louisiana, lawmakers have been meeting for months at the State Capitol, drafting bills that would broaden who could be charged with the crime of “human trafficking” and would make the penalties stiffer.

That’s all fine, Myles says. In fact it’s good the lawmakers are tweaking existing laws to crack down harder on the criminals who run teenaged prostitutes, which is considered human trafficking under Louisiana law. But if the legislators asked her opinion — and they haven’t — Myles would say what government really needs to do is make it easier for teenagers to access the services that are available to adults.

Part of the faith-based community in Baton Rouge, Myles is called in by authorities to work with teenaged prostitutes from other states, who have been arrested, abandoned or otherwise bumped into Louisiana officialdom.

Myles recently was working with a slender 16-year-old from Illinois, involving the child with her volunteer activities. “One of the challenges that I have with her is that she is not 18. Some of the homes would take her if she were 18,” Myles said.

A minor can’t just be parked in an apartment somewhere, Myles said. Many of the children she works with have no family in Louisiana and, often, their families in other states have no interest, or capability, for resuming care. So, instead of a one-stop shop that handles services, such as psychiatric therapy, health care, schooling and drug treatment, Myles runs around to individual agencies to arrange for services separately.

“I definitely think having services for juveniles should be at the top of the list,” said Kara Van de Carr, a co-founder and executive director of Eden House in New Orleans. Eden House is one of two facilities in Louisiana that treat, specifically, victims of human trafficking. Neither accepts teenagers.

Eden House’s two-year program aims to do for adults what Myles hopes to do for teenagers: ease them back into everyday life. The program provides free room and board while the women participate in whatever services answer to their particular situation, such as therapy, drug treatment, education, job training and life skills. Eden House even helps with official identification because many victims of human trafficking have never had a state-issued I.D.

There are probably clinical reasons for not mixing children with adults, Van de Carr said. But the primary hurdles for Eden House are that state and federal laws carry far more stringent requirements when dealing with minors. For instance, Van de Carr points out, women are given keys and are free to leave Eden House any time they choose. The premise is not staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week as would be required of a facility treating adolescents.

“The resources are slim,” agreed State Rep. Neil Abramson, D-New Orleans.

He is on the team drafting the bills that will tweak state law. The measures will be considered when the Louisiana Legislature convenes March 10. But Abramson said the team also will work on finding the funding in the state budget for services that will help teenagers involved in human trafficking.

“The key now is to make sure the services are actually there and in place,” Abramson said. “We don’t have enough financial commitment to make the services available.”

“I have some background with making some bad choices when I was addicted. I did things that I shouldn’t have, and I can relate to them,” Myles said.

But before counseling can work, there has to be trust.

Government officials need to understand that the business plan for a trade that relies on children to have sex with adult strangers who pay relies on isolating the child with drugs, threats, violence and unfulfilled promises, she said.

Myles recalled her first meeting with the 16-year-old from Illinois. “I looked in her eyes, and when I told her I was here to help her, she looked at me and it kind of said, ‘Yeah, I’ve heard that before,’ ” Myles said.

Mark Ballard is editor of The Advocate Capitol news bureau. His email address is mballard@theadvocate.com