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Broken Covenant: A Homeless Youth Organization’s Assault on Trafficking Is Making Women More Vulnerable

It looked like a flyer promoting Bourbon Street strip clubs: purple, magenta and black, with neon light-styled letters spelling out the name of then-New Orleans mayoral candidate, Desiree Charbonnet. But it wasn’t a flyer. It was an opposition mailer, sent just before the hotly-contested November election. Under a photograph of Charbonnet, the mailer stated, “In December […]

Flickr User MsSaraKelly (CC-BY-2.0)

It looked like a flyer promoting Bourbon Street strip clubs: purple, magenta and black, with neon light-styled letters spelling out the name of then-New Orleans mayoral candidate, Desiree Charbonnet. But it wasn’t a flyer. It was an opposition mailer, sent just before the hotly-contested November election. Under a photograph of Charbonnet, the mailer stated, “In December 2015, French Quarter strip clubs were cited for prostitution, drug trafficking and lewd acts. Now, they’re pouring cash into Desiree’s campaign.” The Charbonnet campaign’s response to the mailers was swift and decisive: “It’s all a tissue of lies,” campaign spokesman Kevin Stuart said, explaining that the campaign received donations from those who owned the club buildings, not the owners or managers of the clubs themselves.

The mailer — its claims and its imagery — may have struck a sensational nerve for New Orleans voters: the city’s strip clubs had just appeared in a major Times-Picayune investigative series alleging they were a “hub for sex trafficking,” though the reporters, who were on the story for one year, found no sex trafficking in the clubs. But the series has a backstory: in Jim Kelly, founder and director of a Catholic agency that serves homeless youth called Covenant House New Orleans, who has for several years now campaigned against the clubs, claiming to city and state policy makers that stripping leads young women to become victims of sex trafficking.

This weekend, Kelly’s campaign scored another win. Four French Quarter clubs were raided by the New Orleans Police Department and the Louisiana state Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control, resulting in the suspension of their liquor licenses. Club staff reported that male officers entered the dancers’ dressing rooms, and read their names aloud in front of customers; an advocacy group said no trafficking victims were found. Dancers were handcuffed and questioned, their income cut off for the night or longer — while Kelly, who has long supported heightened policing of the clubs, applauded law enforcement’s raid and called for more crackdowns.

Identifying — and Inventing — Victims

Jim Kelly is a man with a mission, a substantial budget, and influential supporters in city and state government. Since his organization received major funding from the Department of Justice, Kelly has fought to convince lawmakers and the public alike that cracking down on the state’s legal strip clubs will combat sex trafficking.

Jim Kelly Facebook

Kelly’s targeting of the strip clubs is just part of the national Covenant House’s longstanding fight against sex work, from internet advertisements today to street prostitution in the 1970s. Covenant House founder Father Bruce Ritter saw his work as getting youth off the streets and out of the sex trade, at first by getting them into his apartment. Ritter was later forced out of the organization when several men he had taken off the streets said he had paid them for sex, reports which an internal review confirmed had long been known to the organization. Kelly himself has been with Covenant House since the 1980s, and founded the New Orleans branch of the agency. As the issue of sex trafficking has gained in national prominence (in part due to the national Covenant House’s campaigning), Kelly and Covenant House New Orleans have re-positioned themselves as trafficking experts. Covenant House New Orleans touts its role in serving people they say have been trafficked or forced into the sex trade, and who are “turning [their] life around.”

In 2015, Covenant House New Orleans received a $900,000 anti-trafficking grant from the Department of Justice to work in partnership with the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office (which received $600,000) “to support law enforcement efforts and victim services for the next three years.” The partnership is the backbone of the Greater New Orleans Human Trafficking Task Force, whose core team includes the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Eastern District of Louisiana and Homeland Security Investigations, and with members from the New Orleans Police Department and the state Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control — who conducted last weekend’s raid in the French Quarter — as well as the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Customs and Border Patrol.

In 2016, Kelly backed a change in Louisiana’s sex trafficking law that redefined any involvement in commercial sex as trafficking for 18, 19, and 20 year olds, even if force, fraud, and coercion are not present. This makes Louisiana the only state whose law regards some adults who consensually sell sex — that is, who are engaged in what is normally defined as prostitution — as if they are trafficked. The law could also distort the number of trafficking victims found in the state, as reported by law enforcement and social service agencies like Covenant House. “I would love to see this become a federal law,” Kelly said in a Covenant House blog post.

According to advocates, crackdown efforts like Kelly’s — which blur the distinction between women who choose to do sex work and women who are coerced to do so — take power and control away from women at work, and thus contribute to “an environment where trafficking can flourish.” Local advocates point in particular to the dangers that police stings pose for people who work in the sex trade and people who are trafficked alike. The Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office, Covenant House’s partner in the DOJ-funded trafficking task force, is notoriously racist, and routinely engages in anti-prostitution stings, a tactic that can endanger the well-being of sex workers.

Data and “Seduction”

Since 2015, Kelly has zeroed his anti-trafficking efforts in on the city’s strip clubs. “We see time and time again that strip clubs are fertile ground for human traffickers,” Kelly told WWLTV one year before the Times-Picayune series was published, “to pick off, to seduce, to bring into their stable young victims, young women.” But according to independent research by Loyola University on Kelly’s own agency, Covenant House’s clients have not reported being trafficked for sex in strip clubs.

In 2014, Loyola University researchers interviewed 99 people aged 18 to 23 who were served by Covenant House. Ten of those interviewed said they had worked at some time in a strip club, and eleven people interviewed said they had experienced sex trafficking. Though these groups may overlap — that is, someone who had once worked at a strip club may have also, at a different point, been trafficked in a different workplace — none told researchers they were trafficked for sex in a strip club. In fact, some reported being recruited to sell sex not in the sexually-oriented businesses on Bourbon Street, but on the streets surrounding the Covenant House shelter, which sits adjacent to the French Quarter on North Rampart Street.

Covenant House’s Kelly has claimed the strip clubs put women at risk for sex trafficking, but the study of his own organization makes no such claim. “There are no recommendations in the report regarding strip clubs,” Dr. Laura Murphy, lead researcher for the Modern Slavery Research Project at Loyola University New Orleans and lead author of the study, told The Appeal, “as the clubs were not found to be a significant factor in the trafficking we identified among the 99 youth who participated in the study.”

Despite such findings about the agency’s own clients, Covenant House and director Kelly have been engaged in a multi-year campaign advocating for tougher laws and increased law enforcement scrutiny of strip clubs due to what they allege is a link between the clubs and sex trafficking. They also want to ban adult women who are under 21 from working as dancers in strip clubs.

“We ended up looking at whether we could do something we thought was really simple,” Madeleine Landrieu told The Appeal. “Raise the age of those who can dance in strip clubs to 21.” Landrieu, dean of the Loyola University law school and sister of outgoing New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu, said working with Covenant House was her introduction to the issue of trafficking. “These women don’t even initially recognize sometimes what they were involved in,” Landrieu said. She admitted that “every woman who goes and works in a strip club is not trafficked,” but claimed that the clubs are “a gateway or a pathway [to trafficking] for women.”

When campaigning for the bill barring dancers under 21, Covenant House representatives said they were tracking the number of trafficking victims they served who had a history of working in strip clubs — which isn’t the same thing as counting cases of trafficking in strip clubs, and doesn’t capture whether strip clubs are the pathway to trafficking that Landrieu and Kelly claim. The Appeal made multiple requests for comment to Kelly; he initially agreed to an interview, then canceled that interview, and asked that The Appeal submit questions by email. The Appeal then submitted questions to Kelly seeking any data from Covenant House on the incidence of trafficking in strip clubs among the people the agency serves. Kelly did not answer those questions.

Kelly’s campaigns against these dancers’ right to work would seem at odds with his agency’s mission to shelter and serve the disenfranchised. According to their most recently available tax filings, Covenant House took in $5.6M from a combination of foundation and government grants and individual donations between July 1, 2015 and June 30, 2016, funding meant primarily for direct services like shelter, referrals to medical care, and street outreach. They say 761 “homeless youth [who they define as those up to age 22] and children… took refuge” with them in that same period. Yet strip clubs can provide economic security for young women shut out of other jobs because of discrimination based on race and gender.

Working to Maintain “the Basics”

The dancer bans backed by Covenant House have gained traction. In January 2016, the New Orleans city council voted unanimously to ban 18, 19, and 20 year olds from working as dancers in city clubs. Then, Covenant House board chair Landrieu says, “a group of us took it to the legislature to go statewide.” That group was Covenant House, led by Kelly and members of its board, supported by legislators who “believed in the issue” and shared their “understanding of what adolescence is.”

But in March 2017, a federal judge issued an injunction temporarily blocking the ban’s enforcement, after three dancers filed a lawsuit challenging the law on the grounds that it violated their right to work and their freedom of expression. In U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier’s ruling granting the temporary injunction, Kelly appears — the judge cites Kelly’s testimony in support of the New Orleans dancer ban as influential in the statewide ban. The judge also noted the dancers’ argument “that the Louisiana legislature’s true animating forces behind Act №395 [the dancer ban] were paternalistic and moralistic concerns about how women under the age of twenty-one should live, not the goal of reducing the secondary effect of human trafficking,” as evidenced by statements like Representative Robby Carter’s during floor debate on the ban: “We need to do something to get these people [to] recognize that there’s another way of living, you know. I wish there was something we could do to make [erotic dancers] go to church or something.”

In June 2017, the state appealed the judge’s ruling. The case is now tentatively scheduled for oral arguments in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, New Orleans, in February 2018. Covenant House board president Landrieu was dismissive of the dancer’s suit, saying the strip clubs are behind it. “I would suppose 3 individual dancers are not the ones pushing the issue, and while they might be, I would find that surprising.”

A month after Judge Barbier enjoined the dancer ban, the original law’s supporters — including Kelly — returned to the state house, in an attempt to pass a version that would hold up in court. But their efforts met with more opposition this time. Louisiana state senator Karen Carter Peterson pressed the ban’s proponents, including bill sponsor Senator Ronnie Johns, for data showing that the clubs are a gateway to trafficking. “I keep hearing that there is this strong relationship between strip clubs and human trafficking,” Peterson said at a 2017 hearing on the revised bill. “Where is the evidence of that? Give me the evidence of that.” After several amendments were proposed in response to dancers’ concerns, including one to drop the ban and replace it with mandatory anti-trafficking education for strip club workers, Senator Johns pulled his bill in June 2017, saying “we will take our chance in court.”

Nia Weeks, Director of Policy and Advocacy at Women With A Vision — a New Orleans-based community organization that advocates for the rights of women of color, including sex workers — was one of many advocates who opposed the ban and supported the 2017 amendments. She says Covenant House’s efforts to link strip clubs to trafficking doesn’t reflect the realities of Bourbon Street. “I visited every club up and down Bourbon Street” asking women what they did need, Weeks says. At a mostly black club, she says, the women working there “were talking to me about feeding their kids, making sure they had a house to live in.” When it came down to it, she says, “they were concerned with how the regulations were going to affect their ability to maintain the basics.”

Weeks was also skeptical that combating trafficking was the true motivation behind Covenant House’s dancer ban campaigns. “If it really was about trafficking, you would see them trying to pass these laws against those perpetrating the trafficking,” she tells The Appeal. “But there is nothing that they have put forth that is going after these supposed horrific men that are doing these supposed horrific things.… The only thing they have done is try to regulate these women out, and put them in more desperate, detrimental situation.”

Weeks adds that even if Covenant House’s aim is to protect women, there’s no evidence indicating that a dancer ban is a solution to trafficking. “If they have all these women, they haven’t put out any data or information on what can really be done in order to make them safe,” Weeks says, “I haven’t seen anything like that.”

Creating “Vulnerability”

What leads to trafficking, according to the Loyola study, is both more complex and more mundane than the strip clubs that Kelly relentlessly targets. The report’s lead author Murphy explains, “Our findings suggested that it is primarily economic factors among homeless youth that create vulnerability to trafficking, and our recommendations reflect this problem by suggesting that our community provide additional social services and expanded economic opportunity.” To back strip club raids that take money out of dancers’ pocketbooks is to create more vulnerability.

Women With A Vision’s Weeks says that in contrast to Covenant House, her organization seeks to involve women directly in their advocacy, from learning from them with their needs are, to developing campaigns with them, and bringing them to Baton Rouge to advocate for policy change. The organization also works with groups that are advocating for a broader racial and economic justice agenda in New Orleans, such as Louisiana for Prison Alternatives, the Power Coalition, the NOLA Housing Alliance, and Fight for 15.

“I have never seen Covenant House at one meeting,” says Weeks. “They have not reached out to any of the entities that are doing any of these efforts and asked, how can we partner to ensure that this group of people” — including the women working in New Orleans strip clubs — “is protected?” Empowering women and fighting with them for economic justice isn’t the kind of work Covenant House is paid by the Department of Justice to carry out as anti-trafficking work. But neither is the DOJ funding them to lobby for laws putting sex workers out of work, endangering those they are meant to serve.

Thanks to Burke Butler.