Child sex trafficking is here in Florida, it is here in Sarasota, it is everywhere. No crime is more misunderstood, uncomfortable and complex in its implications of what it means to be a victim. Children, those to whom society has the greatest duty to protect, suffer unimaginably, and if afforded an opportunity to escape, are met with confusion, blame and little resources for recovery.
Florida suffers the third-worst human trafficking problem in the United States, after New York and Texas. Human trafficking is an industry generating tens of billions of dollars annually. Sex trafficking and exploitation is defined as the sale of an individual for commercial sex; this definition hinges on the victims’ inability to extricate themselves from the situation. Sex traffickers often use violence, threats, lies, debt bondage and other forms of coercion to force women, men and children into commercial sex against their will.
A study conducted by Shared Hope International found that most prostitutes who came into contact with law enforcement – about 85 percent do – were forced into sex work when they were children. Around 325,000 children are at risk of becoming victims of sexual exploitation in the United States, the average age of female victims being 12 to 14. For those lured into the trade, the average time spent in this cycle is seven years.
The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children estimated in 2014 that 1 in 6 endangered runaways reported to them were likely sex trafficking victims. International Labor Organization estimates that there are 4.5 million people trapped in forced sexual exploitation globally. The Urban Institute estimated in 2014 that the underground sex economy ranged from $39.9 million in Denver, Colorado, to $290 million in Atlanta, Georgia.
Due in part to significant federal and state crackdowns on international traffickers of all types, American children are at a lower risk of being exploited than children in other countries. Yet the issue remains pervasive. This past February a federal judge sentenced a former mentor at the Florida Keys Children’s Shelter to 32 years in prison after a jury convicted him of child sex trafficking, the most recent of a long string of Florida cases.
Ricky Atkins, 29, of Key Largo was convicted in a Miami federal court for taking two shelter runaway teen girls to a mainland motel where his partner, Sandra Simon 24, from Homestead, planned to prostitute the then 15- and 16-year-olds. Simon was sentenced to 11 years in prison. Atkins had worked at the shelter for three years working as a mentor to its at-risk residents. “All I did was drop somebody off,” Atkins said at one point in the trial. This was before Atkins’ cell phone was brought forth as evidence. In an Aug. 17 exchange between the two, Atkins asked, “How’s it going.” Simon responded, “Slow.” Atkins replied, “Damn.” Simon wrote, “One of them just did a call.” He wrote back, “Good.” Later that day, Simon wrote Atkins that the older of the two girls “made $160. Well, $150, she took 10 to eat.”
‘The Pimp Game’
It is undisputed among those working against child sex trafficking that pimps are expert child psychologists. “It is an intricate process of psychological destruction and emotional construction,” wrote self-proclaimed pimp, Mickey Royal in his disturbing 1998 book, “The Pimp Game.”
A pimp can make $150,000-$200,000 per child each year and exploits an average of 4-6 girls. It is estimated that 76 percent of transactions for sex with underage girls start on the Internet. The Internet houses the largest marketplace for buying and selling children in the United States. Online classified sites and escort pages have become a virtual marketplace where children are bought and sold.
Royal writes to would-be pimps that humans function best when social, emotional and biological needs are met, and likewise, can be controlled if money, safety, clothing, food and family are stripped away. He quotes William Shakespeare’s King Lear, writing “The prince of darkness is a gentleman.”
Pimps are known to control every aspect of their victims’ lives: when they can eat, what they can eat, when they can sleep, when they can use the restroom. Resistance should be met with humiliation or rape, as advised in “The Pimp Game.”
“The structure of pimps, hos and tricks is the structure on every job, every house, in every relationship,” Royal writes. “The CEO, pimp, king or whatever title the boss holds is to keep everyone else in place and everything in its place.”
If a pimp pays the women, it’s not enough to leave, and eventually victims are made to rely on their abusers completely. Royal argues that anyone from any background can be pimped, but pimps prefer runaways, the abused, the vulnerable and broken. Studies that exist have found that as many as 95 percent of trafficking victims were sexually abused as children.
Royal writes, “A ho’s desire can’t be fed because she has a need that isn’t material – security, love, acceptance, confirmation of one’s self-worth, etc…. You make her believe you can and will give her these things… by the time she realizes she’s been had, she’s trapped.”
In 2009, Selah Freedom’s founders began a grassroots initiative with women from across the country after discovering the depth of the local child sex trafficking problem. The nonprofit dedicated to helping victims of sex trafficking has quickly transformed into a thriving organization. Selah Freedom has four foundational programs: awareness, prevention, outreach and residential.
Sarasota County raised $1.5 million to create a safe refuge, to be called Selah Freedom House. Selah is a Hebrew word which means to pause, rest, and reflect. Selah Freedom closely partners with law enforcement, legislators and influential leaders to shed light on the issue as well as aid victims and help prevent further abuse.
Selah Freedom brings awareness and education to the community and organizations through their speakers bureau team, reaching more than 39,000 people annually. They offer My Life, My Choice Prevention Programming, which trains youth to avoid pimp manipulation, for teen girls ages 12-17. This survivor-written, survivor-led program has a 90 percent success rate in preventing girls from being commercially sold. Their Outreach Program, active in the jail system and on the street, provides support groups, case management, and referral services to women currently in the sex trade. Selah Freedom has also partnered with law enforcement and the State Attorney’s Office to create the TYLA Program, a diversionary program for sex trafficking survivors in the legal system. They provide residential programming for survivors and education, including personalized educational plans, job placement, trauma therapy, life skills training, medical and legal assistance, and holistic restorative care.
“Sex trafficking is happening and it’s happening right here,” Selah Freedom’s Director of Awareness Vanessa Morris said. “My job is to make sure people know that it’s happening, that it’s happening here, what it looks like and who exactly we’re serving.”
Morris became involved with Selah Freedom in 2011, shortly after it was founded. “I didn’t realize it, but I was surrounded by sex trafficking and sexual exploitation my whole life… I wanted to do something to take action against that. I found out about Selah Freedom and I sort of came in and said ‘anything that I can do I want to be a part of.’ And it just grew from there. We had all these ideas of having houses and a teen prevention program and now all those dreams have become reality.” Selah Freedom currently has a home in Manatee and Hillsborough County.
Morris said that Selah Freedom is held as a statewide model for how to effectively serve the population of sex trafficking victims. “We are setting higher standards that are being recognized.” Upon request, Selah Freedom is launching a branch in Chicago.
“New College kids can help raise awareness,” Morris commented. “Whether it’s talking about it in your class or inviting Selah Freedom to come share with your club, or getting involved with volunteering yourself. There are all kinds of ways you can get involved. People have had service projects with us where they volunteered at the house or at our retail store that we have in Bradenton. College students especially have done so much with just raising awareness about Selah and helping with events.”
“You can raise your hand by volunteering, raise your resources by fundraising, and of course raise your voice by sharing if you know of a situation that you feel you need to report,” Morris said. “Use whatever is in your hands, whatever you’re passionate about. Think about what is in your circle of influence and your talents and then think creatively.”
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