NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - Human trafficking is a problem making headlines around the country. In Part 4 of our special investigative series Kids in Crisis, we uncover children in Louisiana are getting caught up in the sex trade - and are now turning up in the state's foster care system.
It looks like a normal home for a teenager. In it, you'll find bedrooms with twin beds and stuffed animals and a living room with video games. A closer look though, you'll see it's anything but.
"This home is isolated somewhat geographically in a rural area," said forensic psychologist Rafael Salcedo.
With surveillance cameras keeping an eye on the house and schedules keeping kids on track, it's a Louisiana safe house for sex trafficking victims. Salcedo has helped more than 40 young girls there.
"Girls who have a history of sex trafficking suffer from complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder," said Salcedo. "That is like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder on steroids because these girls are not traumatized one or two times, they're traumatized every night."
When victims of human trafficking come into the care of the Department of Children and Family Services, some may be referred to the Free Indeed Home. There, a specialized treatment program awaits with 24-7 supervision, state-approved home schooling and - perhaps most importantly - therapy.
"They have art therapy, they have music therapy, they have equine therapy," said Salcedo. "We are faith-based. We do not force any resident to attend church, to pray or do anything, but they certainly are free to do so."
And, care like that may be more needed than ever in Louisiana.
"I think the growth, if not the explosion of sex trafficking in general, including adolescent sex trafficking, because many of the consumers, many of the Johns, as they're called, want young girls, really, can be traced back to the explosion of the internet," said Salcedo.
According to the most recent report on human trafficking from DCFS, there are hundreds of victims in Louisiana - nearly 290 trafficked for sexual purposes and more than 100 of those were juveniles.
"We have human trafficking victims as young, it's been documented, as young as 7," said DCFS Regional Administrator Denise Evans.
Evans says at any given time in our area, as many as five human trafficking victims are in the state's foster care system.
"When there is a big event, if there is a Superbowl, if there is Mardi Gras, if there is some large, big event that bring others from the outside, that's very well-known, then we actually set up a process where the FBI can contact us, if needed, regarding a child either being abandon, not having a caretaker, actually being involved in trafficking," said Evans.
Evans agrees these are kids who have been through unimaginable trauma.
"I mean, can you imagine that and being sold to other people? Developing trust in anybody would be very, very difficult," said Evans.
Evans says DCFS is currently recruiting specialized foster homes for those children and training workers to deal with that kind of trauma. But with the budget cuts that the department has faced over the years, they have to find creative ways to do that.
"If your budget's cut 40 percent, it's just like a family - you have to decide where the money is going, you know, if you can't have your basic needs met, if we can't meet the basic needs of the children, then, we can't move up that ladder," said Evans.
Evans says budget cuts, gutted staff and overwhelming case loads can create a barrier when it comes to helping victimized children.
"I think we would be able to have better outcomes if we had what we needed, I know we would, and children would be safer," said Evans.
When it comes to children in the state's care, Evans and Salcedo agree it's an area that should not and cannot face any more budget cuts.
"This is the only therapeutic group home in the entire state of Louisiana for the treatment of adolescent victims of sex trafficking," said Salcedo. "There is something about this home that makes them want to stay."
Salcedo says the Free Indeed Home has faced it's own financial struggles because of money fluctuations at the state level. They've been fortunate to receive outside support. But, he says it's difficult to maintain their facility with the kind of costs they incur, especially when it comes to staffing and medical needs for the girls they help. He says nearly 100 percent of them come in with a sexually transmitted disease and must see a gynecologist.