BATON ROUGE, La. (BRPROUD) — Human Trafficking remains a significant issue for Louisiana.

In January, Governor John Bel Edwards joined Dr. Dana Hunter in officially announcing the state’s first Human Trafficking Prevention Resource Center and advocacy campaign.

Sheri Combs, the Senior Human Trafficking Program Manager of Covenant House told BRProud, “I grew up in foster care, was a chronic runaway when I was exploited out on Airline Highway. Could you imagine being raped multiple times every day?”

Combs, a woman with an unimaginable story, now works to empower others.

Combs was lured into human trafficking as a teenager and now says it was the worst experience of her life.

She told BRProud that when she was growing up, traffickers utilized Airline Highway for their illicit acts.

“The victim is usually groomed. You know, they lavished them with gifts, and they made them feel loved,” Combs said.

Combs added that not much has changed, except for the fact that social media has led to an unfortunate expansion in victimizations.

She explained, “And because social media is so transparent and everybody is on this race to be the most popular, people put everything and anything out there not knowing this is the same information a recruiter, a trafficker would use to reel you in.”

In 2020, there were nearly 800 victims of human trafficking in Louisiana. Their ages ranged from 2 months to 63 years old.

In fact, 7 out of 10 reported victims were children.

In 2021, the number of human trafficking cases increased significantly, with more than 900 victims.

Dana Hunter, the Executive Director of Louisiana’s Human Trafficking Prevention said her agency expects these numbers to continue to rise – and that this is a good thing.

Hunter said, “That doesn’t mean that the crime is increasing. That means that (a) folks are feeling more comfortable reporting and identification.”

However, Black women are still going missing at more alarming rates than any other races -– making up most of the percentage of sex trafficking victims.

“Not everybody has equal access to resources. And so, without resources, that creates vulnerabilities,” said Combs.

Hunter added, “Some pimps and exploiters or traffickers, they use brutal tactics. So, they are beating the victims. They are controlling them, keeping them isolated from their families.”

Hunter says her agency’s solution is to spread awareness and educate others.

The agency makes it a point to speak with all schools and universities, as well as law enforcement, about how to spot an abuser.

Hunter said, “If you pull someone over, if you notice this type of behavior, please know this could very well be a victim of human trafficking.”

The agency is also leveraging the use of signage and funding in hopes of aiding survivors.

They’re posting flyers at truck stops, hospitals and the airport and hiring more employees as hands on deck.

The agency has set aside more than one million dollars to hire additional staff.

Hunter said, “We’re establishing multidisciplinary teams in every region, so making sure that we have this care coordination model across the state is what we’re now working on.”

Hunter hopes that five years from now, Louisiana will have better prevention and protection for victims.

She also wants victims to heal and see justice carried out.

“We want folks to be safe,” Hunter said. “We want our children to be protected. We want to see fewer incidences of online solicitation and online exploitation.”

When it comes to educating others about human trafficking, Hunter said, “The Human Trafficking Prevention Resource Center wants everyone to be aware. We like to tell folks everywhere Louisiana is a hotspot. You know, we don’t want any person in our state, young woman, young man, to think that they this cannot happen to them. Think twice before when you go on a date, think twice before drink. Taking that drink. Become educated on this issue. Know the signs. Know the indicators and stay safe.”