A few years ago, Nola Theiss had never seen a cell phone tower. Now she notices them everywhere.
For Theiss, her own ignorance of cell phone towers is like of the ignorance shared by the majority of Americans when it comes to "modern-day slavery." Then a Sanibel councilwoman, she knew the towers had to go somewhere, but she couldn’t name the location of any on the island before that.
"They are sometimes several hundred feet tall, but it’s like they are hidden in plain sight," she said.
Now as she works with the Coalition Against Human Trafficking in Southwest Florida to educate civic groups, social workers, medical professionals and anyone else who cares enough to listen, that’s how she explains the problem.
Human trafficking victims don’t share a lot in common with wireless communication, but Theiss says one attribute is very much true for both.
Once you know what the signs are, you see them everywhere.
Human trafficking - the enslaving of men, women and children in the form of forced labor or for commercial or personal sex - isn’t new to Southwest Florida. Criminal cases against traffickers date back a decade and abuses many more.
But in the past year, several groups have banded community activists and law enforcement together to identify the victims who aren’t always apparent to the naked eye.
"Their torture is not always visible," said Anna Rodriguez, leader of the Florida Coalition Against Human Trafficking based in Collier County.
Cast a light into the dark woods and all of a sudden you see the trees.
A handful of volunteers tried to keep quiet, mashing ground beef destined for meat loaf at the East Naples soup kitchen and homeless shelter.
Collier County Coalition Against Human Trafficking members shuffled into the St. Matthew’s House dining hall to introduce a new flier asking: "Are you at Risk?"
Both the Collier County group and Theiss’ Lee County group are focused on educating "front-line" workers who aren’t law enforcement.
Victims often fear contacting law enforcement. They are often in the country illegally and are scared of deportation. Among the homeless population, they may be using illegal drugs.
Those working for nonprofit groups are often the first to hear the horrific stories.
But often the nonprofit groups listening don’t pick up the telltale signs. They don’t know that if one person is doing all the talking for another it’s a red flag.
The dining hall at St. Matthew’s House is usually filled - about 40 at lunch, 150 at dinner - with some of the most vulnerable to plummet into human trafficking situations: the homeless, many of whom are mentally ill or addicted to drugs.
- PODCAST: Hear Naples Daily News reporter Janine Zeitlin and photographer David Ahntholz discuss their experience in Guatemala covering human trafficking
- AUDIO: Hear a woman discuss her experience as a victim of human trafficking
- AUDIO: Hear José Antonio discuss his experiences with trafficking in the United States
- PHOTO GALLERY: Human trafficking
- FRONT PAGE: View the front page of the Bonita Daily News for Feb. 1, 2006: PDF | JPG
- RELATED: Barriers numerous in detecting slavery victims (02-01-06)
- RELATED: Leading authorities (02-01-06)
- RELATED: Message to the region's churches: 'Set captives free' (02-01-06)
- RELATED: Casting light in the darkness (02-01-06)
- ON THE WEB: Read more stories in the four-day series on human trafficking in Southwest Florida
This makes the homeless even easier prey, said shelter executive director Vann Ellison, who has partnered with the Collier sheriff and Collier Coalition to inform its residents and has posted fliers throughout the East Naples shelter.
"We look at human trafficking and those who are at greatest risk are poor, disabled and disadvantaged ... Here at the shelter, we are turning people away," he said, setting the number at 20 people a day. "It’s a tremendous problem here. Sometimes they don’t even realize the situation they’re in."
Ellison’s first contact with a Collier case was 10 years ago.
A 15-year-old Mexican girl called an Immokalee church for help when rats started gnawing her infant girl. The girl came here with the promise of marriage but was forced into prostitution, Ellison said. She stayed in a shelter for three months. The church then reunited her with her family in Mexico, he said.
Amy Palmer, clinical director of a Fort Myers youth shelter run by Lutheran Services, picked up the flier tailored to runaways and homeless in Spanish, Creole and English.
She wants her staff to distribute them during community outreach.
Palmer’s 20-bed shelter serves five counties in Southwest Florida, including Collier and Lee. A victim was brought to the shelter in September 2004, she said.
The girl, who said she was 12, stayed there until February 2005 and is now in foster care in Miami, Palmer said.
Barely able to speak Spanish, the girl was sold by her family in the rural Guatemalan mountains to a man in Immokalee who used her as a sexual and domestic slave, Palmer said. The shelter connected her with FBI agents, immigration attorneys and counseling services and enrolled her initially in a Lee County school.
"It was very exciting to see her blossom. We’re very hopeful for her," said Palmer, who didn’t know if charges were pursued. "Kids are more vulnerable and more easily exploited than adults. They just don’t have the tools to cope with these dangerous situations."
One place local advocates aren’t making much progress is in the medical community. Because the enslaved are only profitable if they can work, either in the fields or in brothels, traffickers will often seek medical treatment for various injuries.
Local health care officials say their ability to notify authorities is limited because of federal privacy statutes written into the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. Better known by its acronym, HIPAA, the act calls for complete confidentiality when it comes to personal health information.
There are some exceptions to the requirements but only for certain physical signs of violence. For example, if a person is treated for a gunshot wound, it is reported to authorities, said Mary McGillicuddy, vice president of legal services for the Lee Memorial Health System.
"In certain instances the law compels us to report incidents to the authorities," she said. "But unless there is a law in place, we are required not to release the information."
Still, Theiss is working with Madolyn Gingell, medical social work director for Lee Memorial, to train as many social workers as possible in spotting signs of trafficking.
Rodriguez is working with state legislators to make changes in Florida law that would trump HIPAA in certain cases. And Theiss said the groups are working with Lee Memorial’s lawyers to come up with a form allowing a patient to waive confidentiality.
Having medical professionals able to spot victims, especially those seeking care in emergency rooms and free clinics, is an important step in slowing the spread of trafficking, said Steven Wagner, trafficking expert for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
"This is the place where the victims are going," he said. "They need to be able to alert people so they can get help. "We have a lot of programs in place to get victims help. We just need to find them."