In the shadow of the Sunshine State’s tourism industry, people are suffering through modern day slavery.
Churches, law enforcement, hospitals and other organizations are joining forces to combat human trafficking through the Greater Orlando Human Trafficking Task Force.
The area is a sex trafficking hub because of all of the visitors coming in and out year round, said Sarah Webb, with the Victim Service Center of Central Florida.
“Definitely with the tourism and some of the larger cities in Florida and the (Interstate) 4 corridor make it very easy to access victims and to also transport them to the other areas and swap with the different pimps and people involved,” said Webb.
Victims, such as Ashley, a friendly and outgoing 19-year-old who recently led a closing prayer for a small group meeting at Orlando's Northland Church. Ashley is not her real name. We are protecting her identity for her security.
She’s come a long way from when she and a few other women traveled to many states with a sex trafficker who controlled their every move.
“Pretty much been all over the east coast mainly Washington DC, and the Atlanta area. I’ve been to Virginia, and Maryland, Delaware, and Philadelphia, New Jersey, New York, all over Georgia, Birmingham, New Orleans,” Ashley said.
She said human trafficking is not a third world issue, not a poverty issue. She came from a good home with two parents and had everything she needed. “I didn’t think it could happen, nobody did. This is something they don’t talk about to us in school and my parents didn’t really pay attention to what I was doing they didn’t track my every movement, they trusted me,” she said.
Ashley says she met her trafficker one day while skipping school at a fast food place just a block from campus. He made small talk, asked for directions. She said it was like he smelled her vulnerability. She has two parents, but they weren’t always emotionally present and he had the right clothes, the right car, everything she thought she wanted; she felt wanted and became infatuated.
Ashley says she was groomed by the man, and before she knew it he controlled everything: her phone, what she wore, what she ate, where she went. He drugged her when she didn’t behave.
Ashley said she lived this life for about two years. She remembers the exact moment nine months ago when enough was enough. She had just arrived to Orlando.
“I just felt drained I felt depressed, like who am I? I’m standing out on the balcony of a hotel and I was like if I jump would I die right now? Who would care, who would even notice I was gone? I got down on my knees and I prayed, I prayed to God. I said I cannot do this anymore something has got to give,” Ashley said.
She had a card in her bag with a number to a human trafficking hotline. She called and within 30 minutes, help arrived. Ashley now has a safe place to stay through ConnectCity, a program that partners with Northland Church and provides residential space for up to 10 women at a time at an undisclosed location. Ashley is now getting trauma therapy, buying her own groceries, and calls her family once a week.
According to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline, Florida ranks third in the number of calls, trailing just California and Texas.
But officials say it can be hard to prosecute cases for adult women where proof of force, fraud or coercion is needed. Abigail Mills manages 121 Hope, an anti-trafficking ministry at Northland Church. She said more safe homes are needed for women transitioning out of human trafficking in central Florida.
“In Seminole County, ConnectCity is the only residential program for survivors of trafficking, so there’s a huge need for more of these residential facilities that have proper training and trauma-informed care, how to specifically care for trafficking victims,” said Mills.
Ashley said the program changed her life. She said she wants to go to school, get a job, to become a productive member of society. She has a message for anyone going through what she went through.
“There is hope. There are people out there that care, there are people out there that are ready to love you the right way. God does love you, you’ve made a mistake, you’re not a bad person and it will be OK,” Ashley said.
She wants to go to beauty school and one day, she says, she would like to take over this very program that saved her life.