Human trafficking exploits an estimated 100,000 children every year, including right here in the Sunshine State, according to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.
The National Human Trafficking Resource Center reports that Florida is one of the states with the highest reported number of human trafficking cases. The University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications, of which WUFT News is a service, partnered with the Sarasota Herald-Tribune and Bob Graham Center for Public Service Thursday to discuss the severity of human trafficking in Florida.
“A Conversation on Modern-Day Slavery” brought together journalists, law enforcement officials, attorneys, advocates and even a survivor.
The event was broken down into three segments with four panelists. Each was introduced by a video clip from Sarasota Herald-Tribune reporter and panelist David McSwane’s October story “The Stolen Ones,” focusing on child sex trafficking in Sarasota.
Elizabeth Fisher, president of the Selah Freedom House in Sarasota, works with young women who have been victims of sex trafficking. Fisher said the first step is trauma counseling.
“Many of them don’t have an education, living on the streets since you were 11 or 12 years old,” Fisher said. “You’re still at that 12-year-old level in so many ways: emotionally, developmentally, psychologically, mentally. So we provide all those different life skills they need.”
Fisher added that it can be hard to combat an issue that doesn’t get much attention.
Panelist Connie Rose said she has been on the road to recovery for more than forty years after being a victim of child sex trafficking to her father. Rose said bringing the perpetrator to justice doesn’t mean it’s the end of the journey for many victims.
“There are so many victims that are addicted to drugs because that’s how the perpetrator holds them; that’s the tie on them,” she said. “Just because you went through court, just because you’re a witness, just because you appear to be okay and you’re starting to live life, you have to carry this addiction around with you.
“You didn’t ask to have to be addicted to drugs. You didn’t ask to be addicted to alcohol. You didn’t ask to have a record.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney of the Northern District of Florida Frank Williams said interacting with victims and survivors is just one challenge in these cases.
“I call human trafficking a multi-headed hydra … You can’t kill a hydra by chopping off just one head. There’s the law enforcement prosecution head, but we’re not going to kill it that way,” Williams said. “We’re going to have to chop off all the heads, all of us holding a sword at the same time.”
Zach Hughes from the Marion County Sheriff’s Office said it’s not just a reality in the Tampa and Orlando areas.
“The heart of the problem is not investigation and prosecuting people, and it’s not trying to bring some normalcy to victims and survivors,” he said. “The heart of the problem is ending the market place, and that’s where we need to be.”
Hughes and Williams agreed the focus should be on elimination as well as prevention. Hughes said there should be anti-human trafficking efforts directed at kids because they are the ones the criminals are after.