January is Human Trafficking Awareness Month, an issue that advocates are working to spread the word about, especially in South Florida.
Broward County ranks second in the state for cases of forced labor and sex work, and Florida is third in the nation for cases.
“People think that this is reserved for a certain type of person, a certain race of person. They think this is reserved for people in a certain socioeconomic situation,” said Jumorrow Johnson, the human trafficking coordinator for the Office of the State Attorney for the 17th Judicial Circuit and president of the Broward Human Trafficking Coalition.
“People will discriminate, but they don’t understand trafficking doesn’t discriminate,” she said.
In 2019, the Florida Abuse Hotline received 201 calls of suspected sex and labor trafficking of children. After being investigated, 60 were confirmed to be trafficking cases. Most of the suspected cases were “community children” – children living with a parent or guardian.
“We have a lot of community children that are being trafficked, being groomed for trafficking, more so than children in dependent care,” Johnson said.
However, homeless youth who are desperate for stability, food and money do fall into the hands of traffickers. Some of them wind up at Covenant House Florida’s Fort Lauderdale shelter. Since August, 39 cases involved teens who were exposed to exploitation, said Nelson Bogren, the director of compliance and training.
“Youth on the street are particularly vulnerable because they have a lack of protective factors in terms of a stable living environment, adults looking out after them or worrying about them — they are not getting their basic needs met,” he said.
When a trafficker offers financial and emotional stability, as well as shelter, food and the promise of love and affection, it can be very tempting.
Drugs are also used to make them more compliant and create dependence. LGBTQ youth are especially vulnerable, particularly transgender youth. Parents sometimes kick their children out of the home when they come out and reveal their sexual orientation or gender identity, leaving them to fend for themselves.
From what Bogren has seen, social media has been an effective tool for traffickers. Online, they can pretend to be whoever they want and spend months grooming a teen.
“What’s really happening in Broward County is it’s happening in everybody’s own backyard,” Bogren said. “Most people who are exploited are exploited by somebody they know.”
He encourages parents to look out for drastic changes in their children’s peer groups, unusual secrecy, and owning expensive phones, clothes and accessories that they can’t explain. Parents should be able to access their children’s electronics, while still allowing them to have a sense of independence they need to grow.
While parents are concerned about the safety of their children, adults are also likely to be trafficked. Somy Ali, the founder of No More Tears, a South Florida nonprofit that assists survivors of domestic violence and human trafficking, says almost half of their rescues last year was trafficking victims, mostly adults – and they’re also preyed on through social media. In a recent case, a man met his date in person after chatting for a while on Grindr. However, at their date, he was beat up, drugged and trafficked.
“Meet the person in a public place and feel them out,” Ali suggested for those dating online. “Do a background check. You can pay $20 or $30 and do background checks on people. Look them up, look up their arrest records, you have access to all of that.”
Johnson notes that the number of adults being trafficked is harder to track. There isn’t a streamlined way to count trafficked adults, and since they are of age, law enforcement has to prove coercion and fraud. Meanwhile, sex with a child is always rape.
A hurdle that advocates face when prosecuting traffickers is that the court system is stacked against victims, said Broward Sheriff’s Office Det. Michael Joo of the Strategic Investigations Division.
Some survivors don’t want to testify against their traffickers who they have trauma-bonded with.
In one case, they had cell phone records and photos proving a 35-year-old man was trafficking his son’s ex-girlfriend, but because she was in love with him, she would not testify.
Some survivors are also too traumatized to face their traffickers in court, or they don’t want to relive their story in front of loved ones and face the stigma. Legislation is currently in the works to protect survivors.
“They don’t want to testify in front of their new fiancé, talking about how many times they were forced to have sex with strangers for money in the past,” Joo explained.
“We’re trying to fight for survivors’ rights in terms of protecting their identity, trying to make it easier for them to be able to testify and empower them.
Said Joo, “They’ve been victimized enough; there’s no reason why they need to be victimized again.”
Organizations to follow
Broward Human Trafficking Coalition
The organization brings awareness, education and action to Broward County through training, speakers and community events. bhtc.us
A shelter and nonprofit that provides assistance to homeless youth, including survivors of human trafficking. covenanthouse.org
No More Tears
A nonprofit that rescues and helps gets survivors of human trafficking and domestic violence back on their feet. nomoretearsusa.org
South Florida Human Trafficking Task Force
A coalition that rescues and protects victims of human trafficking, prosecutes traffickers, and educates the community. sfhumantraffickingtaskforce.org
Anti-human trafficking events
Anti-Human Trafficking Virtual Youth Summit on Jan. 9 from 12 to 2:30 p.m. Youth are invite to this summit with keynote speaker and survivor Cyntoia Brown Long, jam session by Stichiz of 103.5 The Beat, and a spoken word performance by Rebecca “Butterfly” Vaughn. Must be younger than 18 and have parental consent to participate. Free. Register at yhts.eventbrite.com.
Protecting Children From Human Trafficking and Child Exploitation Webinar on Jan. 11 from 6 to 7 p.m. Broward County Public Schools presents a webinar to educate parents on the warning signs, myths and stereotypes of human trafficking victims. Join via Microsoft Teams at bit.ly/3nlDCzV or call 754-216-1864, conference ID 967 903 89#.
Survivor Stories on Jan. 14 at 6:30 p.m. No More Tears is hosting a conversation with a survivor of human trafficking to educate the public about the myths and realities of the problem. Visit facebook.com/nomoretearsusa.org for the Facebook Live event.
2nd Annual Interfaith Leaders Human Trafficking Virtual Training on Jan. 26 from 5 to 7 p.m. The training by the South Florida Human Trafficking Task Force will provide information on human trafficking awareness, education, prevention, and resources for survivors. Visit bit.ly/3bf71JG.