Sun-Sentinel: South Florida teens victimized by human trafficking, officials warn
Human trafficking that ends with teens in sexual slavery is on the rise in South Florida, experts said Wednesday, warning that every family – regardless of income, education or location – could become a victim. The chilling warning came from people who work in government, social services and the legal system. They were convened for a closed-door analysis of the problem and potential solutions by U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston.
South Florida teens victimized by human trafficking, officials warn
Human trafficking that ends with teens in sexual slavery is on the rise in South Florida, experts said Wednesday, warning that every family – regardless of income, education or location – could become a victim.
The chilling warning came from people who work in government, social services and the legal system. They were convened for a closed-door analysis of the problem and potential solutions by U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston.
“No matter where you are from, no matter your walk of life, understand: Your child can be a victim,” Wasserman Schultz said later at a news conference. “Every family is potentially vulnerable because too many families don’t know what’s going on in their child’s head. We all have to stop tuning this stuff out as something that happens to other peoples’ kids.”
It happened to Lisa and Henry Manns of Plantation.
Their daughter, whom they didn’t identify, was 17 when a friend introduced her to a man at a high school football game.
The man was just two years older than the Manns’ daughter, and initially they weren’t at all suspicious. He was even a guest at their home.
He befriended the girl, taking her under his wing and lavishing her with attention, the parents said – a process called “grooming.” The moment she turned 18, she left the house. Now 20, she’s “back and forth” and hasn’t fully left that world.
“My daughter didn’t grow up saying she wanted to be a prostitute,” Lisa Manns said. “She was weak. She was vulnerable. And she has low self esteem, and he took advantage of that. … These Romeo pimps, they know how to manipulate these young ladies because they look for their weakness and they prey on it.”
Henry Manns said a child exhibits clues: becoming isolated and secretive, engaging in phone calls at all times of the night, starting to sneak out, starting to dress differently, exhibiting unusual defensiveness to parental inquiries. “These are things that all parents need to be aware of.”
In 2016, calls reporting suspected trafficking victims in Broward totaled 156, said Jumorrow Johnson, a vice president of the Broward Human Trafficking Coalition. In 2012, she said, there were just 92 reports.
Human trafficking is increasing in numbers – and the children who are ensnared are increasingly coming from children living in families and less from children in the foster care system, Johnson said. In 2012, 51 percent of the cases involved children living in communities with families. By last year, that was up to 83 percent.
Palm Beach County doesn’t have the same kind of statistics, said Dr. Heidi Schaeffer, vice president of the Human Trafficking Coalition of the Palm Beaches and an officer with the Broward Human Trafficking Coalition. For the first 11 months of 2016, she said a state child abuse hotline received 96 trafficking calls involving Palm Beach County. The number could be higher once more investigations are completed.
The National Human Trafficking Hotline’s website reported 1,623 phone calls, emails and online reports referencing Florida last year. In 2012 it received 883 calls.
Johnson said more children are being “Romeo-pimped into the life.” She said they’re under the impression that they’re dating their future trafficker. “In actuality, they’re being groomed for the sex trafficking industry,” she said.
Wasserman Schultz said a Broward County judge participating in the roundtable described a case in which the 16-year-old daughter of a judge was trafficked. Someone claiming to be a modeling agent lured her to California. Her parents had said no to the notion, and she climbed out her window and vanished for four months. Wasserman Schultz said the girl was found in a movie theater wearing nothing but a T-shirt.
A big part of the “grooming,” Wasserman Schultz said, is providing the victims with things that children covet, such as clothing, that parents say no to. In the Manns’, case, one of those things was paying for a manicure. Drugs and sometimes blackmail can follow. “And they end up being pushed into a life of sexual favors and then being sold,” she said.
Schaeffer said sex trafficking is the subject that gets the most attention. “This isn’t just about sex. This is also people who are literally working as slaves. People still exist as slaves today,” she said in a telephone interview. “They’re doing roofs and they’re your nannies that never get to go home and they’re housekeepers in hotels.
She participated in the Wasserman Schultz roundtable but was not at the subsequent news conference. Of last year’s Palm Beach County cases, Schaeffer said, 85 involved sex trafficking and the rest involved forced labor.
Wasserman Schultz and Schaeffer also said people can’t assume that girls are the only victims. Boys are affected as well; Schaeffer said one-fifth of the Palm Beach County juvenile victims last year were male.
Schaeffer said she told the congresswoman that more money is desperately needed. Once victims are discovered, facilities are needed to house them, legal help is required, and drug rehabilitation and mental health therapy are vital, she said.
Wasserman Schultz said more money isn’t realistically likely to flow any time soon.
The congresswoman said she hopes to increase collaboration among nonprofit and government agencies that all work hard on attacking their areas of the problem. But she said they often operate in silos concentrating on those areas, and benefits could come from greater collaboration.
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