A bevy of local law enforcement, social services, advocacy and justice officials filled the lobby of the Caddo Parish Juvenile Justice Center Friday, January 13, 2017, to kick off local observance of the national Human Trafficking Prevention Month.

“We are here from many walks of life, all with a common purpose,” said Caddo Parish Juvenile Court Judge Paul Young. “We are here to protect children, No. 1, foremost. If what we do doesn’t meet that objective, we are in the wrong business.”

There were more than 100 child sex trafficking victims identified in Louisiana in 2015, the youngest a 6-year-old child. In Caddo-Bossier that year, the FBI recovered 13 child sex trafficking victims.

“We are here to stop the exploitation,” Young said. “We are here to stop punishing children because of what adults do to them. We are here to provide  counseling, a safe place for children, restore children to their parents if possible. We are here to let children be kids again. That’s important.”

Shreveport Mayor Ollie Tyler and Bossier City Mayor Lorenz “Lo” Walker issued proclamations, but also spoke from the heart about the problem affecting the area.

“The tragic epidemic of modern-day slavery facing our region is taking our children down a horrible path,” Tyler said. “We cannot stand by idly and not get involved. It will take all of us working together to end this cycle of human trafficking.”

The Caddo Parish District Attorney also spoke and was honored for his efforts in establishing and expanding programs to combat this exploitation, receiving one of two inaugural Freedom Fighter Awards. The other recipient was Bossier City Chief Deputy Marshal Shelley Anderson.

“It is an intrastate problem,” Stewart said to the group of assembled law enforcement and elected officials. “It’s an interparish problem. It’s a neighborhood problem. It’s a school problem. We’ve managed to erase the lines that separate our parishes and our neighborhoods and we work together for this common problem.”

The Caddo DA’s office has partnered with the FREE Coalition, the Community Response Team and other law enforcement and social service providers working on the front lines to identify victims, to empower survivors and to prosecute traffickers.

Stewart and other members of his office are part of a social media campaign to bring awareness of the problem out into the open, with community members posting pictures with signs conveying a range of anti-trafficking memes, saying “Real Men Don’t Buy Girls,” “Real Men Don’t Buy Boys” and “Real Men Don’t Buy Sex.”

“In Caddo, human trafficking is a problem,” Stewart said. “It is a priority, and we have designated it as one of those priorities that we want to deal with. The Bible tells us that we need to be more kind and look after those who are least able to protect themselves, and children are least able to protect themselves. We have a duty as believers in Jesus Christ to move forward and help them. Please keep focused on the task. The task is helping our children.”

An educational event will close out the monthlong observance. That will take place Friday, January 27, 2017, with training on “Recognizing the Signs of Sex Trafficking.” It will be from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the YWCA of Northwest Louisiana, 850 Olive St., Suite B, Shreveport. Participants will learn more about how to recognize the signs of trafficking and report to the appropriate authorities. A panel of experts will outline the red flags and recruitment process of trafficking, detail local anti-trafficking work and address an often-asked question, “Why Don’t They Just Leave?” To take part or to secure more information, RSVP to (318) 550-4417.

Recognizing the signs:

Here are warning signs parents, family members and educators should look for to signal that a young person might be a victim of, or vulnerable to, human trafficking and sexual exploitation:

1) Having older male or female companions

2) A history of running away

3) Unusual activity at hotels or motels

4) Having unexplained expensive items such as jewelry, clothing, purses, cell phones or electronics or money

5) Tattoos, especially those with a name or symbols of money. Such tattoos are often used by pimps as a way to brand their victims.