As part of Human Trafficking Awareness Month, law enforcement officials and other stakeholders are coming together to make sure Floridians know what to look for to help combat the modern day slavery practice.
Even with awareness and education campaigns, there are still misconceptions that human trafficking is just an international problem. But, in Florida, it’s everywhere.
“It’s a very clandestine operation,” said Robin Hassler Thompson, speaking on WFSU's Perspectives. “You can’t see it. In fact, one of the national awareness campaigns is called ‘Look Beneath the Surface,’ because when you see somebody, say someone working in a field or a restaurant or you see kids on the street corner outside their high school, for example, you don’t know what’s going on with them, and they could be trafficked.”
Hassler Thompson is the Executive Director of The Survive and Thrive Advocacy Center, or STAC—an organization that seeks to fight human trafficking in the Florida Panhandle.
“It’s almost trite to say, ‘See Something, Say Something,’ but we know that this is a phenomenon,” she added. “Florida is third in the nation when it comes to human trafficking. That’s according to the calls that come into our national hotline, and also, in terms of the prosecutions.”
Chris Canova is the Acting U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Florida. In his role as a prosecutor, he’s seen many examples of traffickers preying on the most vulnerable victims.
“A young lady, a teenager in a broken home, she has an argument with her mother, and she goes off to her friend’s to stay a few days,” he said, speaking on WFSU's Perspectives. “While she’s there, she decides she’s ready to go back home, and then two guys she meets there, won’t let her leave. They beat her into submission, they force her into prostitution, they advertise her on the internet, and make her dress provocatively, and take her all the way to Illinois and back to Florida—performing 50 different sex acts a week.”
He says these predators also want to make the victims more dependent on them.
“We had a young lady who had a cocaine addiction, and so this predator started feeding her cocaine, until her got her completely dependent on him,” he added. “And, so, this predator started feeding her cocaine, until her got her completely dependent on him. And, then, he started beating her. In fact, in one of the incidences, he ripped her hair out, and forced her into prostitution.”
And, Canova says there are other heartbreaking situations he knows of as well.
“We had a young lady who owed her drug supplier money, and so, to pay off the debt, she offered up her 14-year-old sister,” he continued. “And, so, for a two or three month period, the sister and the drug supplier took this 14-year-old child around to what they call plays—100 different plays to pay off this drug debt.”
Still, it’s not just people local to Florida who are victims. Others are brought in from all over the world.
“We prosecuted a case in Panama City, where we prosecuted eight defendants, who were part of a large network, bringing in dozens and dozens of women from outside the country illegally, and then prostituting them around Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Florida,” Canova stated. God knows what they promised these women to get them over to the country, but once, they got here, they were basically slaves. They didn’t get any money, they were transported around the Southeast, until we were able to finally apprehend them and put them in prison.”
And, STAC’s Hassler Thompson says there are ways to help these immigrant victims as well.
“For example, we know that if people from another country are trafficked here, they may be eligible for something called a T Visa, which would allow them to remain in this country and work,” she said. “And, if an adult participated in the prosecution of the trafficker, etc., there’s also U Visas and other immigration relief that’s available for victims as they come here and come forward.”
She says she’s encouraged by some legislation filed for the 2018 legislative session to make it easier for victims to sue their human traffickers. Another measure also moving in the Florida legislature adds the dangers of human trafficking to public schools’ health curriculums.
For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter: @SaschaCordner.