Category Archives: Human Trafficking

The Porch Light

Child holding head in hands
Guest post by Dr. Jerry Haag, Ph.D., CFP
President/CEO of Florida Baptist Children Homes, The Porch Light and Orphan’s Heart

A common reaction when we see, experience or hear about something repulsive or tragic is to ask the question, “Why?”

Pleading for answers and reflecting on the cause is as normal as expecting the sun to come out tomorrow. But the questions we should be asking as it pertains to innocent children being sexually exploited and trafficked in Florida should really look more like, “What now?”

Did you know that in the past year there were more than 1,200 reports of human trafficking to the Florida Abuse Hotline? Although we’ve made great progress in two short years, the number of available, safe beds for victims of human trafficking does not yet meet the need.

At The Porch Light, we are proud to operate a safe home that helps combat that reality. We exist to serve victims like 13-year-old Mary* who came to our safe home earlier this year.

Mary’s father died when she was young and her stepfather was physically and emotionally abusive, so she ran away. One night, when Mary was sobbing on the bench at a bus stop, a man drove by who promised to “take care of her.”

She was forced into prostitution and her life was so consumed with pain and deceit that she turned to alcohol to numb reality.

When Mary arrived at the safe home, she looked twice her age. She was bruised and broken, pleading for a better life.

Working with partners like DCF, law enforcement agencies and other child welfare organizations, we facilitate long-term trauma care for victims like Mary, while pouring our hearts into prevention efforts to stop this gruesome trade.

Our safe home’s expert staff focuses on helping girls overcome the abuse they have endured and works to redefine their self-worth, which has been grossly distorted. Sometimes it takes three to four months in a safe environment for a victim to talk about their traumatic past.

Utilizing therapeutic horses , highly trained coaches and mentors, and individualized care, The Porch Light helps heal scars that no child should ever have.

We are grateful to live in a state where forceful steps continue to be made to get predators off the streets, and we applaud those who have been bold enough to call for stronger measures to protect innocent children.

On January 1, House Bill 369 went into effect. It requires signage and advertisements in a plethora of public places to help Florida residents and visitors understand the real and present dangers of sex trafficking.

This year, The Porch Light reached more than 21,000 people through advocacy and prevention efforts and we believe in educating and equipping people so they can understand common signs of sex trafficking and make the difference our children so desperately need.

Now that you know you can make a difference in keeping children from being sexually exploited, I have a question for you: “What now?”

Let us take bold steps together to care for these innocent children and eradicate this heinous crime from our communities.

The Difference

Guest post by Brandy Ingram, youth coordinator at Federation of Families.  This is part one of her blog post series. The FOF is an organization focused on the issues of children and youth with emotional, behavioral, or mental health needs and their families.

All the youth in the leadership program I coordinate have powerful, emotional stories. They have gone through things no child should even know about.  After sharing my story and hearing their stories, the outcome was empowering for not only them, but for me as well.  One thing, I’ve shared with the youth, is that you are not your diagnosis, it is only a part of you and how you deal with it and live with it is what makes the difference between being a productive citizen and not.

Here is one child’s story:

Sarah*, 13 years old

I got taken away from my birth mom; she had me and my twin brother at 13 years old.  She had been in human trafficking since she was a little girl; in my country that was very common.  My mom is from Panama and my dad is Puerto Rican.  My dad was in gangs and that was the only family that he had.  I always wondered if my family knows that I still exist, that I’m still alive.

I was separated from my twin brother at age 5.  He was still at the orphanage when the people who adopted me took me away.  I screamed and I would not stop crying because he was basically the reason why I survived.  I wish that I could see him and my mommy and daddy. I ain’t gonna lie, every time I see a family I cry and every time I see twins I get upset and cry.  I always wish that I could have a good family.

When I was 6, I was brought to the U.S. by this adopted family.  By age 7, I was being abused by the family, my dad would hit my mom and my mom would hit me and then put makeup on me and tell me that I looked beautiful.  I have been raped, abused, I have abused heroin, which my adopted dad started me on by shooting it into my arms.

For five years, I did not say anything, but then my best friend called the police and helped to save my life.  DCF took me away.  I admit that I don’t miss them, but I do miss being with a family, because that is all I ever wanted.  I have a lot of trust issues, but I’m learning how to try and trust people, but every time I get close, I have to go.

When I got into foster care, I did heroin; I was addicted. I got into a couple of programs, but I started fighting and running away.  The longest I stayed away was a month.  When I went back to the group home, they ended up sending me to a commitment program.

I got out July 19, 2013.  I was diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder and it’s really hard to deal with things.  I want to change and live a better life.  I know that there are going to be bumps in the road, but as long as I have God, I’m okay.  I’m trying to learn how to open up, instead of holding everything inside and it is very hard, but I will try.

*Name changed for privacy.

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.

Who am I? The identity challenge for sex trafficking victims

Guest post by Jesse Maley, founder of Out of the Life Inc., a Central Florida organization that helps women find freedom from the sex industry. OOTL provides counseling, therapy, career help, emergency services, housing, family reconciliation and justice system assistance.

One of the ways sex traffickers hold their victims captive is by taking away identification documents. Without their state ID’s, drivers licenses, social security cards and birth certificates, the victim does not have access food, clothing, housing or any other basic human need. Without identification they can’t register for school, get any kind of job, open a bank account or get an apartment.

The documents also allow the trafficker to get the victim’s food stamps, social security or disability payment and PIN numbers – things the trafficker will not give up.

As time in captivity continues, the victims are assigned “working names.”  These names are changed often and many victims claim that sometimes they had so many names they couldn’t keep them straight.  Their identities are as lost to them as their pride, confidence and self-respect.

All of this is happening right here in Florida.

In 2012, Out Of The Life Inc. helped many local victims reclaim their lives by:

  • Helping 20 survivors open new bank accounts
  • Providing job placement and career counseling for 22 women.
  • Enrolling three survivors of sex trafficking in local vocational schools
  • Helping 13 women pass their GED.
  • Providing housing for 13 young women who had nowhere else to go.
  • Assisting with re-entry services for more than 60 women who were in jail or prison
  • Providing too many bus passes to count so that these survivors have transportation to work and school.

Out of the Life helped this sex trafficking victim obtain housing, an ID, a bank account and a job. She is now working to become self-sufficient.

The most transformational experiences we have had were in the faces of the 130 women that we assisted in accessing one or more of their Identification Documents.  One young woman said it best when she opened not only her own birth certificate, but that of her 6-year-old daughter: “It’s like now I really exist!”

There a dozens of hurdles that service providers to victims of sex trafficking face when responding to a new case regardless of age or gender, but one of the most rewarding case management tools we can offer is the restoration of their identity documents.

Spread the word about human trafficking – let people know it is happening here in Florida and needs to be stopped. If you know of someone who may be a victim, call the Florida Abuse Hotline at (800) 962-2873.