Guest column: Putting the brakes on human trafficking in Southwest Florida

By Lou Pontius

Fort Myers

Chair, Women’s Fund of Southwest Florida

When one hears about “sex slavery,” it might seem like a remote possibility or a problem that plagues distant societies and cultures. However, the truth is that there are a growing number of women and children being sold for sex right here in Florida.

In Florida, one out of every three teenage runaways is sold for sex within 48 hours of leaving home, and the victims include girls as young as 12 years old. Human trafficking, which includes children, women and men who are subjected through force, fraud or coercion for the purpose of sexual exploitation or forced labor, is growing at an alarming rate.

It is a low-risk, high-reward business that occurs behind closed doors. There is little available data; lack of coordinated foster care, social welfare, educational, medical, and law enforcement services; and an overwhelming lack of public awareness of the magnitude of the issue.

To help end modern day slavery, The Women’s Fund of Southwest Florida is advocating for establishment of the Southwest Florida Regional Center on Human Trafficking. The Women’s Fund has invested $150,000 as seed money to operate this center for the first two years, and is dedicated to raising awareness of the center, its mission and services.

The proposed center will be hosted on the campus of Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU) and will be designed to support the multi-agency Human Trafficking Task Force, led by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Middle District of Florida. It will cover Lee, Collier, Charlotte, Hendry, Glades and DeSoto counties. The broad regional representation on the Human Trafficking Task Force positions the proposed Center to address human trafficking in a coordinated manner.

The proposed Center’s strategic plan names three major goals:

1. To facilitate a regional human trafficking protocol among law enforcement, prosecution, and social service agencies.

2. To standardize data collection on human trafficking.

3. The promote education and best practice methods related to human trafficking.

According to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, there are 2.5 million people trafficked in the United States alone. In 2011, the center’s tip line ranked Florida third in the country in the number of calls.

The Florida Abuse Hotline is the first state abuse hotline to accept and identify calls specifically alleging child trafficking.

We must alter the incentives to engage in this activity and make Florida a zero-tolerance state for modern slavery. In 2012, the Florida Legislature passed legislation to strengthen existing laws against modern slavery and to curtail a $32 billion industry. The Safe Harbor Act helps ensure the safety of child victims who have been trafficked by directing them to intensive treatment instead of being simply placed in juvenile delinquency.

A 2010 report to the U.S. Department of Justice identified significant barriers that prevent professionals from identifying victims, including lack of training in victim identification, the hidden nature of sex crimes, the inability or unwillingness of victims to identify the perpetrators, and the lack of systematic data tracking these victims. The lack of a coordinated approach to human trafficking has been identified by the region’s U.S. Attorney as a barrier to effective detection, intervention, and prosecution of human trafficking cases. A continuum of care for victims needs to be developed that would identify the roles and referral requirements for providers of victim services.

The center will develop and implement a regional protocol that includes the enhancement of victim support provided by law, order and victim service agencies. The role of the center is also to develop and implement a data collection method that facilitates the coordination of services and forensic investigations on human trafficking cases. Victims of trafficking will be identified and assisted as survivors, not criminals.

The trafficking of human beings is one of the greatest human rights issues of our time. The mission of the proposed Center is to support all efforts to reduce the presence of human trafficking in Southwest Florida. We will feel successful once we can document with solid and reliable data the reduction of the crime and greater support for victims.

A not-for-profit 501(c) 3 organization, The Women’s Fund of Southwest Florida continues to seek financial contributions at www.womensfundflorida.org or via email at contact@womensfundflorida.org. To connect with a service provider or report suspected human trafficking activity, call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center at 1-888-3737-888.

Pontius has served on the board of the Alvin A. Dubin Alzheimer’s Resource Center, chaired the United Way of Lee County and been president of the American Heart Association Lee County and the Junior League of Fort Myers. A former high school math teacher, she enjoys gardening and boating.

© 2014 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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