FLORIDA: Talking About Trafficking

Love146 Lakeland Task Force Member<

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  • What does human trafficking look like in Florida?

This blog is part of a series showing the unique ways human trafficking is discussed and present in cities around the world. Want to share about your city? Email Elaine at elaine@love146.org.

PRISTINE BEACHES, CRUISE TERMINALS, INTERNATIONAL AIRPORTS, FIRST-RATE AMUSEMENT PARKS, AND A PLETHORA OF HOTEL AND CONVENTION CENTERS MAKE CENTRAL FLORIDA ONE OF THE MOST SOUGHT AFTER TOURIST LOCATIONS IN THE NATION.

The I-4 corridor, a major highway system that crosses the state, makes it incredibly quick and easy to connect the tourist cities of Tampa and Orlando. Unfortunately, there’s a dark side to this booming tourist industry. With so many transient people, the state is ranked third in the nation for the number of human trafficking cases. Hillsborough County, where Tampa is located, has more strip clubs per capita than any other county in the United States and more adult entertainment facilities than it has McDonald’s restaurants.[1] The contrast of home to the “happiest place on earth” with the disturbing underbelly of the area is shocking, though largely unnoticed by those without eyes trained to see.

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IN THE LAST COUPLE YEARS, HIGHLY PUBLICIZED CASES OF MINOR SEX TRAFFICKING IN CENTRAL FLORIDA HAVE MADE NATIONAL HEADLINES, HELPING RAISE COMMUNITY CONCERN.

Tampa is home to the FBI Innocence Lost Task Force where over one hundred children who have been sold for sex on Backpage.com or out of local hotels have been rescued in the Bay Area.[2] In 2013, three people were accused of running a trafficking ring in which two runaway girls, ages fifteen and sixteen, were forced to have sex with four to five men a night. One of the traffickers was a twenty-one year old St. Petersburg woman who pleaded guilty in federal court to conspiring to engage in child sex trafficking, posting nude pictures of the two runway girls online, and making them perform sex acts in local hotels. The girls were found in a local motel. [3] The sex trafficking of minors is not only taking place in central Florida’s large cities, however. A Lakeland man pleaded guilty to child trafficking when he recruited twelve underage victims to his “dance team” and had them perform at parties, setting aside a private room where they would engage in sex acts.[4] Most recently, an Orlando man was sentenced to life in prison for trafficking a sixteen-year-old girl.[5] Several other cases are currently under investigation.

In the midst of this darkness, there is also so much hope, as many people are working together to influence change and to support survivors. State safe harbor laws in Florida are starting to catch up with federal law, viewing minors as victims in need of restorative services instead of criminals with a record. Local police are trained on trafficking and conduct undercover stings to catch pimps and johns and recover those who are exploited. Attitudes are shifting to curb demand as stiffer penalties are given to those who purchase sex from minors. Florida has also developed one of the nation’s leading systems for tracking children who have run away from foster care, with a subset to identify potential domestic minor sex trafficking victims.[6] According to a local social worker, these runaways are often found on the streets near hotels known for prostitution. Furthermore, Lakeland, located between Tampa and Orlando, hosts one of the few safe homes for girls identified as trafficking survivors. The Porch Light program of Florida Baptist Children’s Home provides holistic services to meet the many needs of these young women while transitioning back home or to a foster family.

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People are also learning the warning signs of trafficking in order to become the eyes and ears of our community, advocating for those who are at-risk. Within the last couple years, local organizations have trained literally thousands of people on how to identify trafficking. Our Lakeland Love146 task force distributed posters with the National Trafficking Hotline number and information on trafficking to twenty-eight local hotels. We also conducted a study of hotels along the I-4 corridor and found that almost half of the employees who responded to a survey were able to positively identify trafficking warning signs. While this is a positive sign that awareness is growing, less than half of these surveyed employees were familiar with the National Trafficking Hotline. This is the type of critical information that we are working to disseminate in our area as a means to protect children.

AS BEAUTIFUL AS CENTRAL FLORIDA IS TO LIVE IN AND VISIT, WE ALSO DESIRE TO BE A BEACON OF LIGHT TO THOSE WHO ENTER OUR COMMUNITIES.

As our Attorney General Pam Bondi has declared Florida a zero-tolerance state for human trafficking, we hope to grow in best practices to reduce the amount of trafficking cases in our area and properly support those who have already faced exploitation.

[1] Kelly, K. (2013). Too close to home: Human trafficking in Tampa Bay. Tampa. WEDU.
[2] Uhler, J. (2013, November 19). FBI: Children being sex trafficked in the Bay Area at an alarming rate.
ABC Action News. Retrieved from http://www.abcactionnews.com/news/region-tampa/fbi-children-
being-sex-trafficked-in-the-bay-area-at-an-alarming-rate
[3] Krueger, C., & Summers, K. (2013, November 29). In Pinellas, troubling cases of human trafficking, teen prostitution. Tampa Bay Times. Retrieved from http://www.tampabay.com/news/publicsafety/crime
/in-pinellas-troubling-cases-of-human-trafficking-teen-prostitution/2154797
[4] U.S. Department of Justice (2014, February 11). Lakeland Man Pleads Guilty To Sex Trafficking And
Child Pornography Charges. Retrieved from http://www.justice.gov/usao-mdfl/pr/lakeland-man-
pleads-guilty-sex-trafficking-and-child-pornography-charges
[5] Weiner, Jeff. (2015, January 8) Convicted of human trafficking, sex offender sentenced to life in
prison. Orlando Sentinel. Retrieved from http://www.orlandosentinel.com/news/breaking-
news/os-aaron-george-human-trafficking-guilty-20150108-story.html
[6] Florida Department of Family and Child Services. (2014) Florida Department of Children and
Families Annual Human Trafficking Report 2013-2014 Federal Fiscal Year. Retrieved from
http://www.dcf.state.fl.us

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