on Wednesday, November 3, 2021

 Jamie Dew, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and Leavell College president, guided discussion for a panel addressing sex trafficking at the school’s Leavell Chapel Oct. 28. Dew called the issue easy to overlook but dangerous to ignore.

Panel participants included Kay Bennett, Send Relief Missionary and executive director of New Orleans’ Baptist Friendship House (BFH); Kendall Wolz, BFH director; Ryan Rice, Send City Missionary and pastor of New Orleans’ Connect Church; and Craig Garrett, NOBTS associate professor of counseling.

Bennett works with the FBI and the National Human Trafficking Hotline (888-3737-888), a national resource center, to assist in the recovery of women and children caught in human trafficking.

“Human trafficking is the use of force, fraud or coercion to compel a commercial sex act,” Bennett explained.

The Oct 28 panel was held one week after U. S. Marshalls recovered eight children and arrested 18 sex offenders in an operation in the New Orleans area. The New Orleans newspaper The Advocate/The Times-Picayune reported one of the cases was “particularly alarming” because the teenage girl recovered had been headed to Las Vegas to meet up with a man she had met online.

Bennett pointed to the significant risk social media poses for children and unsuspecting adults, luring in victims as young as 12 years old.

Bennett recounted a situation she became aware of soon after she began working with the human trafficking hotline.  A young woman, from a rural area, became trapped in sex trafficking after posting on social media that she needed a job in order to support her baby. Lured across the state line by a fraudulent job offer and separated from familiar settings, she was then trafficked across five states. The predator coerced her by threatening her daughter’s safety.

Social media posts – such as the young woman’s posts – that carry no privacy settings are “a predator’s playground,” Bennett explained.

Bennett said human trafficking watchdog groups report that as online usage increased during the COVID shutdown, “trafficking increased 45 percent.”

Dew, in response, stepped out of his role as moderator to encourage listening parents to stay vigilant in monitoring their children’s activities online. “You are the shepherd of your child,” Dew said. “It’s okay that you tell them ‘no’ to social media accounts. You have the right to say, ‘Let me see this.’”

Drugs also are used to coerce victims, Bennett said, adding that once a victim is dependent on drugs or alcohol, the predator can control her.

The Baptist Friendship House, located at the edge of New Orleans’ French Quarter, serves women and children in transition, providing housing and educational resources to help women reenter life. Serving with NAMB’s compassion ministries in New Orleans since 1990, Bennett said her long-time ministry to those in vulnerable positions was a “natural fit” with human trafficking rescue efforts.

The homeless -- those without resources or family -- are particularly vulnerable, Bennett said, adding also that “when someone leaves human trafficking, they are often homeless.”

Persons trafficked from a young age and “sold over and over” reach an age where “their bodies wear out” and they are no longer useful to the predator, Bennett explained. “They are [then] thrown away like a piece of trash on the street,” Bennett said.

Kendall Wolz, a NOBTS Ph.D. student in counseling, came to New Orleans as a NAMB summer missionary in 2010 and stayed knowing that serving at BFH fit with her calling to work with women and children.

Wolz told of a woman who once stayed at BFH and took her baby on an outing to the park across the street. A man approached her, made light conversation, then offered to buy her baby from her. Stunned, the woman raced back to the BFH and authorities were called.

“Thankfully, they had a safe place to come back to,” Wolz said. “[Trafficking’s] not happening in Las Vegas or New York … It’s literally happening across the street from us.”

Craig Garrett noted that the trauma of human trafficking impacts victims’ ability to relate to others.

“What we know about trauma -- especially when it’s repeated and especially at early developmental stages -- is that it tends to imprint itself on a person and affect them in a lot of different areas,” Garrett said. “That person may have lingering issues with trust and with relationships.”

Garrett said that the NOBTS counseling program teaches trust-based interventional models that deal “skillfully and carefully” with victims, as well as a trauma course to prepare counselors.   

Ryan Rice pointed to resources provided by NAMB’s Send Network and Send Relief program whose goal is to “meet needs and change lives.” Rice reminded the audience that there is “brokenness” everywhere but that church partnerships with Send Relief can help mend lives through the gospel.

“You have the robust orthodoxy of a church and you have the robust compassion that comes along with it. Combine those two,” Rice said. “You have Christianity.”