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Florida Sex Trafficking Bust Sheds Light On Victims' Needs

Witnesses say police attempted to break down the door of Sequoia Apple Day Spa in Hobe Sound when no one answered the door.
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

When authorities busted what they say is a multimillion-dollar human-trafficking and prostitution ring in Jupiter last month, law enforcement spoke out against the horrors endured by women taken as literal sex slaves. The trafficking, they said, was not a “victimless crime.”

But nearly two weeks later, the majority of the victims remain behind bars as law enforcement seeks their cooperation in the case.

“To hear that [law enforcement] were able to recognize that these women are victims but yet they’ve locked these women up because prostitution is still seen as illegal in this state is really sad,” Vicky Basra, the Senior Vice President of the Delores Barr Weaver Policy Center in Jacksonville, said Friday on the Florida Roundup.

The February sting of 10 spas in Central and South Florida was the result of some six months of investigation that uncovered an operation stretching all the way to China.

Police say many of the women were brought to Florida with the promise of a job in a spa. Instead, they found themselves trapped as literal slaves, being prostituted for sex to hundreds of men per week. Among the men busted: billionaire New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft.

The details emerging are horrific, said Mary Helen Moore, USA Today’s Florida Network and TC Palm, who’s been covering the story.

“They were living inside these spas, sleeping on cots, there’s a makeshift shower, maybe a microwave or a crock pot, and they’re forced to work as prostitutes -- from 9 a.m. to midnight maybe,” she said. “They don’t have cars, they’re told not to go outside, [not to] speak to authorities.”

Despite the evidence, which involves video footage, making a trafficking case may prove more difficult.

Law enforcement has “videos of the prostitution,” Moore said, but they “don’t have videos or records that prove human trafficking. The evidence are these witnesses. So they need these women to tell them what happened to them.”

There are many reasons why trafficking victims tend not to talk. Traffickers often spend time grooming and psychologically manipulating their victims, Basra said.

“These women are really facing what we would call ‘a trauma coercive attachment,’ which is really this attachment that is connected through a ‘power over’ relationship.”

Women may also fear retaliation from their trafficker, such as violence directed at them or their family. They may be scared of facing criminal charges.

Trafficking “usually [involves] poor, disadvantaged women who are taken advantage of,” Miami Herald reporter Julie Brown said on The Florida Roundup. In the case of the bust in Palm Beach, it was “desperate people who really want to try to start a new life.”

Basra said the international nature of some cases also makes it difficult for law enforcement to engage victims.

“In many of the countries that [victims] originally come from they may not trust law enforcement,” Basra said. “So if their trafficker here has taught them ‘you can’t trust law enforcement here, you can’t trust all of these organizations,’ that’s what they’re going to believe.”

In the case in South Florida, there is also a language barrier. Law enforcement agencies did not have Mandarin speakers to communicate with the women; they have relied on translators.

“You have to invest the money and the time to really topple these kids of complicated sex trafficking operations,” Brown said.

She’s skeptical of the way law enforcement tends to handle trafficking cases, often implicating those who solicit the prostitution, known as the “Johns,” not the traffickers. That may be happening in South Florida now.

“To be in a position now where they don’t even have anybody sex trafficked cooperating with them says to me that they didn’t really do their investigation into the sex traffickers, they must have been doing it focusing more on the Johns,” Brown said. “I’ve always felt they they never seem to follow the trail of where this all starts and try to get the real people that are making huge amounts of money and really making these people suffer.”

Basra said getting victims to talk is a matter of building trust.

“What we know is that women and girls have told us over and over again is ‘we want to receive services from someone who gets it,’” she said. “Someone who gets it better than a clinician or better than an everyday person.”

The Center works to change policy around sex trafficking to provide women and girls with services and support instead of time behind bars. It recently created an Open Doors Outreach Network, currently working in 30 Florida counties to pair trafficking victims with a survivor mentor, a regional advocate and a clinician.

“Until we can bring individuals who can speak their language, that look like them, to start connecting with them, we’re not going to start building that trust,” she said.

To report a tip or get help, call the confidential National Human Trafficking Hotline 24/7: (888) 373-7888.

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Jessica Weiss