Florida ranked third highest for human trafficking cases

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all photos courtesy of the Girl Scouts of Gulf Coast Florida

According to the Clearwater/Tampa Bay Area Task Force on Human Trafficking, there are 27 million humans in slavery worldwide. In the United States, Florida is ranked third in prevalence of labor and sex slavery, or human trafficking.

On Saturday, Feb. 18, the Girl Scouts of Gulf Coast Florida (GSGCF) hosted a day of awareness for human trafficking. Detective James McBride of the Clearwater Police Department, who is also the head Task Force officer, spoke to an audience of over 100 at the GSGCF’s Sarasota headquarters. He warned girls, parents and community members of the threat that traffickers hold. “Everyone needs to understand that this is in every community in the United States, in every country throughout the world,” he said. “ Is it rare or frequent? Depends on the size of the community. But this is a crime against a person, not property.”

The detective noted that there are somewhere between 100,000 to 300,000 girls aged 11 to 17 who are trafficked domestically for sex each year. Astonishingly, while 80 percent of the 27 million worldwide are women, 50 percent of those trafficked are children.

“[Traffickers] look for people who will fall off the map, where no one will know they’re missing,” the detective said.

“The youngest was a 12 year old girl involved in this,” he noted from personal experience. “We arrested about seven or eight men in that case … another was a 13/14 year old.”

In the cases of sex trafficking, pimps, who are not all men, prey upon young girls through recruiters or the Internet. The detective laid out the various methods used: “Domestic juveniles are recruited through social networking sites, geo-tags imbedded in photos, website ads appearing to be legitimate jobs for high schoolers … [in] Tampa Bay area malls, Greyhound and public transportation, drugs, money, alcohol or extortion,” he said.

McBride is one of three state-employed officers in Florida that work exclusively on human trafficking cases. Under the Clearwater Police Department, the Task Force focuses on both sex and labor trafficking. The detective emphasized that human trafficking is distinct from incidences such as human smuggling. Smuggling cases involve the movement of people through a paid guide, or coyote. Typically, these smugglers never even enter into the country.

Human trafficking does not necessarily involve movement. “[Human trafficking] is when the suspect is using force, fraud or cohesion to do sex crimes or forced labor,” McBride explained.

Speakers emphasized that traffickers are most interested in monetary gain from their victims.

“These traffickers look at you like a product,” McBride told the audience. He cautioned girls to notice if someone shows up to school with a tattoo, because that is a sign that they have been “branded” by their trafficker.

“You can sell a gun once, but you can sell a person over and over,” Sally Senitz of Wings of Shelter International said.

Senitz, along with her husband, Lowell, runs a shelter for young girls who have fallen victim to predatory traffickers. “Most of the young girls who have been trafficked run away from the foster care system,” she said.  Most of the young women come to the shelter with trauma, and typically show signs of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD.) “We started the safe house with the purpose of rehabilitation,” she noted.

The Senitzes started the safe house in Florida after having spent years doing rehabilitation work in Romania and the Congo. Started four years ago, the Florida shelter houses just five girls at a time.

“Assisting the victim is challenging,” McBride told the Catalyst. “ The funding part is difficult.” He noted that it is easier to find federal money for assisting victims with legal services or recovery than state funds.

“Federal funding means less issues — however, some services are more difficult to find than others, like if there’s a language barrier,” he continued.

“Once you start uncovering the rocks, you’d be surprised … we were surprised,” McBride said, referring to the rampant problem of human trafficking instances in Florida. The detective noted that most of the cases he and his team have prosecuted have been federal cases.

He also said that there is now an effort to change state laws regarding human trafficking.  “[Right now] we have to work with local and federal laws to prosecute – it’s a long process, they’re difficult to prove,” he said.

However, the officer noted that not only are the media starting to recognize this vital issue, but also that “law enforcement attitude is changing.” He recalled that the laws used to protect criminals more than they did the victim.

“We’ve had a high success rate of prosecution,” he continued. The detective said that his team has lost just one case, in which three of the four charged were found guilty. Evidence was deemed inconclusive for the fourth, but the trial resulted in his deportation.

“Human trafficking can happen to anyone,” McBride emphasized. “When people are educated and aware, they’re gonna do something. I don’t blame anyone that doesn’t know.”

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