Guest commentary: Fighting back against human trafficking

Eileen Connolly-Keesler, The Community Foundation of Collier County CEO, on NewsMakers 07-07-13.

Eileen Connolly-Keesler, The Community Foundation of Collier County CEO, on NewsMakers 07-07-13.

By Eileen Connolly-Keesler

Naples

President/CEO

Community Foundation of Collier County

Human beings are being bought and sold in Collier and Lee counties.

Our Community Foundation’s women’s fund (Women’s Initiative Network or WIN) granted $10,000 to the Fort Myers-based Women’s Fund of Southwest Florida Inc. to help build a resource center and partnership between the Human Trafficking Task Force and Florida Gulf Coast University. Together they will gather much needed statistics, and coordinate victim support to combat the heinous crime of modern slavery.

Last week, hundreds of WIN supporters heard two experts — Brenda Tate of the Women’s Fund of Southwest Florida, and Connie Rose, founder of Victims2Survivor — describe human trafficking at the Community Foundation’s annual Power of the Purse luncheon.

Rose shared her personal story in the sex trade. As a young girl, she was sexually abused and pimped out to others by her father. That scenario is all too common, she said.

According to Rose and law enforcement sources, familial trafficking makes up 30 percent of all trafficking victims. The average age of a child when first exploited for prostitution is 13, experts say. Legally, a child under age 18 cannot be considered a prostitute and is a victim.

Domestic minor sex trafficking (DMST) can happen to both boys and girls, and children are easy targets because most are susceptible to deception and manipulation of traffickers. They are lured into the situation by false friendships, false romances and false promises.

Human trafficking is big business fueled by “buyers” from all ages, occupations, backgrounds, and ethnicities. Estimated to be a $9.8 billion industry in the U.S., traffickers can sell underage girls for $400 per hour or more. According to research, the average age of a buyer when they first purchase sex is 21. Those who purchase sex or pornography are fueling the commercial sex industry and contributing to the exploitation of children. It is estimated 100,000 children are sexually exploited every year in America.

In Florida, statistics show we have one of the highest occurrences of human trafficking in the U.S. Many victims start as teenage runaways. Florida has an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 teenage runaways each year. One of three of these children will be coerced or forced to prostitute within 48 hours of being on their own on the streets.

In Collier County, very few statistics on local domestic sex trafficking are available — only the number of cases prosecuted. The number of cases doesn’t even begin to unveil the real problem, according to Sgt. Wade Williams, head of the Collier County Sheriff’s Office Special Crimes Bureau/Exploitation Section. “This crime is hiding in plain sight — and most trafficking is happening through the Internet,” he says. “The CCSO would be very interested in having more resources available”.

By assisting in the establishment of the resource center, not only will we support the victims of this heinous crime, but we will collect essential data needed to reduce the incidents of one of the greatest human rights challenges of this century.

How can you help combat women’s and girls’ issues in Collier County like human trafficking? Donate to the Women’s Initiative Network endowment fund by calling 239-649-5000 or visiting www.cfcollier.org/womens-initiative-network.

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