NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - Some children as young as 10 years old are trapped in a life they can't escape - sex slavery. After a life-altering trip, the head of the Louisiana State Police is on a personal mission to help some of the many victims of silent slavery.
For so many of the 38 million sex trafficking victims worldwide, their stories are eerily similar. One young woman, who lives at Covenant House in New Orleans, says, "I started off when I was 14. A guy picked me up from a bus stop. I had just gotten into it with my parents, so I left and he gave me a sense of what I thought was love."
Men provide affection to troubled youth - at first showering them with expensive gifts - and then the nature of the relationship quickly changes.
"After a while, you know, it was just sex with him, sex with friends, sex with friends of friends for money. To experience something like that, and to have all those different men use me the way they did, it made me feel disgusting," the woman said.
"Most people think, oh there's human trafficking, that's happening in a third world country, that's somewhere over in Europe, that's in the Middle East. That's just not the case. It is happening right here," Louisiana State Police Col. Mike Edmonson said.
A recent study by Loyola's Modern Slavery Research project found Covenant House cares for approximately 90 to 100 young people a year, both men and women - all victims of human trafficking.
"I feel like this issue isn't looked on enough because people feel like it's not a major issue in the United States, and it is," the woman explained.
Edmonson adds, "We can no longer choose to turn our heads and look the other way."
In an effort to better understand the issue, Edmonson traveled to Rome last fall with Father Jeff Bayhi.
"I'm telling you, every 10, 12 feet, there were young girls," Bayhi said.
Bayhi is friends with a group of nuns in Italy who've dedicated their lives to saving others. Over the course of a week, Edmonson heard firsthand accounts, horror stories as he calls them, of life in the sex trafficking trade. A conversation with one young lady still haunts him.
Edmonson recalls, "I said, 'you're beautiful,' and you would see her close her eyes. That only made [the woman] more valuable, that only made more people want [the woman]. And that brought me right back to Baton Rouge where I spoke to a 17-year-old girl the exact same way."
Edmonson returned to the states with a renewed purpose. "We're training our troopers, we're training other police officers in Louisiana about what to look for."
What may seem on the surface like a prostitution case could easily be a girl being held against her will. "Sometimes as police officers, we're so busy - ok we're gonna make an arrest, let's make this arrest, let's move on. Here's a chance to listen to what the person's saying, watch what they're doing," Edmonson explained.
Troopers are also advised to call on others, like social workers, for assistance. Edmonson thinks that if even one life is saved, the effort is worth it. Now, he's working with Bayhi to provide a place of refuge for victims in Louisiana. A shelter for minors will be built in a secret, secure location near Baton Rouge, largely thanks to donations.
"Unfortunately, we're liable to find them as young as 10 and 12, I mean, people watching me think I've watched too much television. No, we're liable to find them as young as 10 or 12," Bayhi explained.
Edmonson adds, "We need a place that they will be protected, where they can re-build their dignity, where they can re-connect with family if they need to."
The nuns the duo visited in Rome will play a part, too. "Graciously, we have four religious sisters who've agreed to come and mother these children," Bayhi said.
Bayhi says opening the shelter is a small step forward in helping the recovery process, but stopping the sale of young people is something that will take much more work. "It is the second-largest revenue producer in the world behind the sale of illegal arms," Bayhi said.
For so many, it's a vicious cycle that's difficult to escape. "I felt like if I did get away, he would find me you know, or do something to me, or do something to my family, you know, so I was scared," the woman at Covenant House explained.
She spent two years with the man who picked her up from the bus stop. She was 14 at the time, he was 28. She says he took her from Georgia all the way to California, with many stops in between.
"He put me online and on the streets and stuff," said the victim.
In California, she says the man was arrested for armed robbery. That's when she found the courage, to leave. She explains, "It's possible, it's very much possible, I know they're gonna tell you that it's not, that you won't make it without them, but trust me - I'm living proof that you can make it."
With the help and support of the counselors at Covenant House, she's now getting her GED and looking at colleges. She hopes to become a social worker so she can serve as a guiding light for others, sold into the sex trade, who are too afraid to break free.
It's difficult to pinpoint how many victims there are in Louisiana because so many are taken across various state lines. While sex trafficking is extremely common around big sporting events like the Super Bowl, Col. Edmonson points out that it's really a problem year-round. It's just very easily concealed.