When the Rev. Jeff Bayhi began talking about human trafficking, people told him this only happens overseas, not here. Bayhi knew better.
“We’ve had hundreds of arrests in south Louisiana in the past few years, and people just don’t get how prevalent it has become,” said Bayhi, pastor of St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Zachary. “This is the second largest (illegal) moneymaker in the world, second only behind the sale of illegal arms. They were third, behind the sale of illegal drugs, but the traffickers realized you sell a drug, you sell it once. You sell a young girl, you can sell her 10 or 12 times a night, and they do.”
Since discovering a decade ago how an Italian nun has ministered to trafficking victims, Bayhi wanted to do something similar here. Specifically, for minors as young as 12 who have been turned into sexual slaves, he wanted a place for them to heal and learn there is more to life than being exploited. Nationally, there were fewer than 200 beds for trafficking victims of any age, said State Police Lt. Chad Gremillion, and far fewer for minors.
Later this year, Bayhi hopes to change that.
Bayhi plans to build a home for up to 16 underage trafficking victims, supervised by four nuns trained by Sister Eugenia Bonetti, who has founded similar homes in Italy. The home will be run and funded by a nonprofit organization Bayhi started several years ago that has the money to get the project started.
Bayhi, Bonetti and others involved with such homes will be in Baton Rouge May 6-9 speaking to lawmakers, law enforcement and judicial officials, clergy and board members of the organization. The home will be built near Baton Rouge.
The home has the support of several legislators and law enforcement officials, who say neither the criminal justice nor foster care system is equipped to deal with minors who have undergone this level of abuse. Since 2014, State Police has investigated 28 incidents involving child sex trafficking, Gremillion said.
“It’s one thing to arrest a girl for prostitution,” said State Police Superintendent Mike Edmonson. “If you give her no reason not to do that and provide no education, no change in culture, then where does she go but right back?
“I’ve asked these girls here, ‘Why didn’t you ever reach your hand out and ask the police to help you when they arrested you?’ And she goes, ‘I had my hand out all the time. The only person there to grab it and bring me back was those that wanted to do me harm, those that controlled me. They’re the only people that came to get me. My family didn’t want me.’ I heard these same, similar stories in Europe.”
Late last year, Edmonson joined Bayhi and Bobby Gaston, special programs manager with the Louisiana Sheriffs Association, state Sen. Ronnie Johns and the Rev. Rodney Wood on a trip to Italy to visit homes Bonetti has established to reach girls rescued from trafficking.
In Europe, trafficking victims are often from Africa or other non-European Union countries, recruited by promises of a legitimate job or educational opportunities, only to have their passports stolen and be forced into prostitution.
In the United States, victims are typically Americans who are lured in a variety of ways. Most are runaways, Gremillion said. When found by traffickers, they are taken far from home where they are unlikely to be recognized or have friends who can help them. They may be drugged, beaten and threatened with harm to themselves or family members if they escape.
In some cases, a family member or primary caregiver cooperates with the traffickers.
“You’ll have someone who is a crack addict,” Bayhi said. “She’s fat and ugly. She can’t afford the drugs, so she gets the drugs and her pretty, 14-year-old daughter pays the bill. That happens a lot more often than people would like to imagine.
“You will have people working for the traffickers who look young, who will enroll in a local high school — they may be 23 years old but they look 16 or 17. They’ll find out who the party girls are. They’ll find out who the kids are who are game and willing to party and don’t have a curfew. ‘Oh, yeah, my dad’s cool. We can have a party.’ Her ‘dad’ is her pimp. They go party all weekend, and by Sunday morning this girl is somewhere in Oklahoma City working at a truck stop. She’s been drugged. She’s been sexually brutalized. She’s out on the streets.”
The home is designed to be secure and provide an environment to educate and rehabilitate victims.
Years ago, Bayhi began a tax-exempt corporation, Metanoia (which means “change of heart”) he thought would lead to a youth retreat center. As he realized the need to help young trafficking victims, he changed gears, though not without reservations.
“How do you hire someone to work in this facility? That was my great fear,” Bayhi said. “You have children who have been sexually brutalized. They probably have emotional, psychological issues. A lot of them may have chemical dependency issues. In this lawsuit mentality of dealing with these kids, how do you hire somebody? I just was never, ever willing to consider that possibility. I told Sister Eugenia, ‘Sister, if you get me some nuns, I’ll do it.’ … I was scared to death.”
That is the formula Bonetti employs in numerous homes in Italy, which care for the trafficking victims.
“One thing we noticed was the tremendous love between the nuns and the girls and, in many cases, their children,” Gaston said. “They would be calling them ‘Mama’ or ‘Grandmama’ or things like that. A lot of our evils today in society are the breakup of the family and the close-knitness that used to exist that we don’t see anymore. That’s causing many of the problems in the world.”
There is no shortage of victims. Between 200,000 and 300,000 U.S. children are at high risk of falling prey to the sex trade industry, according to U.S. Justice Department statistics provided by Edmonson. Finding them and encouraging them to take advantage of the facility is the other side of the equation.
“It makes me want to work so hard to make sure my troopers, and work so hard with the sheriffs and chiefs to make sure every police officer is educated to make sure they see the signs of abuse, they see the signs of trafficking, they see the things that don’t look right and they know how to respond,” Edmonson said. “That just drives me every day.”