Monthly Archives: January 2014

A Call to Action

Guest post by Regina Bernadin with the International Rescue Committee of Miami. January is Human Trafficking Awareness Month.

human traffickingClara was born in a small village in Central America. At 14, she was the oldest child in a family of eight and felt responsible for helping her parents take care of her siblings.  When her father became sick and unable to work, the family was plunged into poverty. When the opportunity came to work in the fields in Florida, Clara left her happy childhood for the long trek across the border into the United States.  Upon her arrival in Florida, she found that she would be working 14 hours a day for almost no pay, living in a cramped trailer with other workers and showering outside with a garden hose.  She was underfed, not allowed to contact her family, feared being sexually assaulted, and was beaten if she was sick and couldn’t work. She was told she could leave once she paid her smuggling debt, but making a few dollars a day, she knew she couldn’t walk away, especially since the owners also threatened her family’s life. Distraught, she just tried to make it through each day.

Florida ranks third in the number of human trafficking investigations and cases identified. Being a port of entry to the rest of the country, having such favorable weather and bountiful agricultural fields has made this region a hot bed for this type of criminal activity. This gives the state an unfavorable distinction and overshadows the good work being done at every level.

When I first began working in this field in 2005, we were just learning how to fight back. Front line responders such as emergency room workers, law enforcement agents, and victim advocates, were all coming across victims and individually trying to figure out how to help them out. Many times victims of sex trafficking were mislabeled as child prostitutes or seen as undocumented immigrants, like Clara, who were exploited because of their lack of immigration status and familiarity with the language and customs of the United States. We failed to look beneath the surface and see that they had been coerced into a life of slavery and exploitation.

Today we have better tools, more knowledge, and a better approach to combating human trafficking. Front line responders are now working together to create ways to help those they might come across in their daily work. Law enforcement agents are being trained on this issue at the police academy, child protective investigators know what indicators to look for in responding to a call, airport staff is learning how to spot the signs of human trafficking, and the school system is focusing on prevention among its youth. Communities are encouraged to call the Florida Abuse Hotline at (800) 962-2873 to report tips that could save Clara and other victims. But more can be done.

Good work is being done, and I want to encourage you to learn how you can join those throughout Florida who are working to rescue and restore victims of commercial sexual exploitation, forced labor, and slavery. Coalitions of interested citizens are working year-round to raise awareness in their respective communities.  Others mentor both American–born and foreign-national victims and help them develop new skills.  You can also volunteer or fundraise to help organizations who provide direct services to trafficking survivors or collect necessary goods by hosting donation drives.  But before you decide what the best way for you to help is, there is one thing you can do today.  Talk to your colleagues, loved ones, and friends about human trafficking. It will take all of us to combat trafficking, and this is the first way how.

“For Rent”

Guest post by an Orlando Metropolitan Bureau of Investigation (MBI) Undercover Agent.

mbi logoIn September 2011, a 16 year old girl came to an Orlando hotel room to meet a man for sex.  The girl was a runaway that was seductively posed and advertised “for rent” on an online prostitution site.  The man was an undercover vice agent at the Metropolitan Bureau of Investigation (MBI).

The girl was wearing a dirty white tank top, pajama bottoms and flip flops.  She was holding her arms tight to her chest when she walked into the hotel room and went directly to a corner chair and barely said a word.  She was a scared little girl about to meet an adult man for sex in a dingy hotel room.  It was the most disturbing thing I had ever seen and the image of the little girl walking into that room frightened and alone, will go to the grave with me.  I could not believe this was happening in a major city, a family oriented tourist destination designated as one of the happiest places in the world.

As a cop, I knew I had failed to grasp how pervasive human trafficking was.  I had assumed it was going on somewhere else and it was someone else’s problem.   Everything changed for me that day and I knew we had to significantly increase awareness of this hideous crime of human trafficking to first responders.

This girl was recovered and turned over to her father and mother.   Until that day, this was an average teenage girl from a nice residence in an affluent neighborhood.  She had parents that loved her, cared about her and were involved in her life.  She was not the typical trafficking victim.  But like most girls we deal with in these types of cases, she was caught up in the intrigue and mystery of the life. She was tired of being vanilla, frustrated with her parents, and enamored with material things. She made poor choices, met up with manipulative and persuasive people who tricked and deceived her, and before she could realize what had happened she had crossed that line and now found herself having sex with strangers for money.

Since that day, MBI has worked more than 50 human trafficking investigations, recovered nine girls who were forced into prostitution, and conducted countless interviews of commercially sexually exploited girls, mostly runaways.  Human trafficking is no longer a foreign concept to law enforcement officers in Central Florida.