NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - The number of reported cases of people victimized by human trafficking in Louisiana is growing, according to the Department of Children and Family Services.
The annual report showed cases of people 18 and older increased 41 percent in 2017 compared to 2016, and reported cases among children 17 and younger grew by 77 percent.
"It is scarily surprising how easily a child can be blackmailed," DCFS consultant and author of the report Walter Fahr said. "I think it was up to 60 or 70 kids 12 and under who were identified as confirmed victims or at-risk victims. That's even a much younger group than most people think about."
Orleans Parish ranked number one in the study with 104 reported cases, followed by Caddo Parish and East Baton Rouge Parish.
Jefferson ranked fourth with 25 reported cases, and St. Tammany Parish rounded out the top five with 16 reported cases in 2017.
In total, the study found 438 confirmed cases of human trafficking victims in Louisiana, 219 cases of prospective victims and 24 cases that were not reported.
One of the reasons for the uptick is because seven organizations not included in the 2016 report turned over their numbers for the 2017 report, but less than half of the agencies in Louisiana dealing with human trafficking victims will reveal the number of reported cases because of confidentiality issues
"This is just the tip of the iceberg," Fahr said. "Just from even the providers we are not getting all of the data we think we should be getting, but then again, we're not necessarily getting all of the disclosure from the actual victims out there either. It's only dependent on whether they are able to seek services from providers."
A majority of those trapped in sex trafficking come from less affluent backgrounds or foster homes, according to Fahr.
But he also warns that children have become victims by sharing nude photographs on social media, which can then lead them to being blackmailed and lured into off the sex trade unknowingly.
"I've seen some testimony of some older people who had that experience coming from upper middle class homes," Fahr said. "The risk for kids who are runaways or on the streets is much greater that's true, but I don't think we can let our guard down for our kids across the board...There is a lot of naivety about what is happening on social media and how people misrepresent themselves and who they are on that and how vulnerable kids truly are."
"The youngest victim we've had is 13 years of age," New Orleans Covenant House Executive Director Jim Kelly said. "That's an 8th grader."
Kelly was not surprised by the increase number of reported cases.
"Over the course of the last two year's we've cared for 155 trafficking victims. I think people would be really surprised by that number," he said.
Kelly is a part of the Greater New Orleans Human Trafficking Task Force. The group is holding a summit at the Lakeview Christian Center at 5885 Fleur De Lis Drive on March 8th.