Florida is the third largest state for human trafficking with victims coming from all regions, according to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center.
Trafficking can be defined as a form of modern-day slavery. Millions of young women, men and children are exploited and traded for labor or sex acts.
Rita Lawrence, sexual assault program manager for Alachua County Victim Services and Rape Crisis Center said victims are often forced to comply because of death threats to family members.
“A lot of times in these cases people are threatened with death if they don’t comply, or that their family members are going to be killed,” she said. “So, they very much are traumatized by what happened to them.”
Recent spikes in the number of Florida victims spurred action by government and law officials. It also recently pushed forward the reporting and publication of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune’s project, “The Stolen Ones.”
The project will be the focus of an event Thursday at 6 p.m. at the Bob Graham Center for Public Service. The event is organized, in part, by the University of Florida’s College of Journalism and Communications, of which WUFT News is a service.
Sherry Kitchens, co-founder of the Alachua County Human Trafficking Task Force, said local law agencies such as Gainesville Police Department are stepping up to help prevent these crimes.
“We’re starting to see law enforcement making some efforts and educating themselves,” she said, “and really working on, ‘OK, how do we organize ourselves to really address this problem?’”
Kitchens also commented on the importance of local service organizations, such as Created Gainesville, in locating and helping victims. She said the organization actually operates in areas where victims are being trafficked.
“They’re reaching out and saying, ‘You’re not alone” and providing some resources and some emotional support,” she said. “What we’re finding is that it takes five to seven tries for a victim to actually get out of the sex trade.”
In 2012, the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline of Florida received more than 1,000 calls regarding trafficking victims, according to its annual report.
Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi launched a statewide initiative for human trafficking in September with hopes to decrease these numbers.
Lawrence said these victims usually have no way to help themselves.
“Human trafficking victims live so much in fear of coming forward that it almost is coincidence sometimes that they’re able to get help,” Lawrence said. “They might have tried to run in the past or get away from their traffickers, only to be punished, beaten or their families threatened. They would find it very difficult to know how to even proceed after.”
Kitchens said that the healing time for those who have been trafficked can be very intense and takes a long time.
“Knowing that there can be something different for them and that they can have a life and be loved and cherished and not beaten and exploited,” Kitchens said. “It’s really a deprogramming kind of process and its definitely a lengthy process for victims to get the counseling and the intensive support they need.”