Despite a wave of momentum in Northeast Florida to identify and protect survivors of human trafficking, the need for services to support victims is still catching up to the demand.
The Exchange Club Family Center hosted its annual child-abuse prevention conference on Wednesday, bringing dozens of area counselors, social workers, nonprofits and government officials together with experts to learn more about the link between human trafficking and child abuse.
The dialogue in the round table and panel discussions mostly focused on women and girls in sex trafficking, but included the lesser-talked-about problems of male victims and labor trafficking.
“Let’s call it what it is: It’s modern-day slavery,” said panelist Crystal Freed, an attorney, noting that slavery looks different than it did centuries ago. “We don’t see the chains that bind. … These victims are often chained to their traffickers in many ways.”
The state Department of Children and Families investigated 1,225 cases of suspected trafficking in 2015, said Marina Anderson, regional human trafficking coordinator for DCF. Of those, Anderson said, approximately 200 were in Northeast Florida and just under 100 were in Duval County.
Lt. K.S. Goff of the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office said the department made 43 arrests for trafficking and that there were 24 federal indictments last year.
Florida’s Safe Harbor Act took effect in 2013 to prevent children who are in the sex trade from being prosecuted and instead provides them with needed support services.
“That is one of the best things the state of Florida has ever done, to give these victims the right to be seen as victims and not as criminals,” said Sarah Markman-Sayar, vice president of operating services for Family Support Services. “It is not a choice to prostitute at 14 or 15 years old. … They are victimized in some way to be a part of that lifestyle.”
Goff said the Sheriff’s Office’s last three cases involved juvenile victims. Trafficking cases usually have a drug connection and often try to get their victims hooked on drugs, he said. And, increasingly, traffickers are women, and even close relatives of their victims, he said.
Getting victims into the support services that they need remains difficult. Freed said victims often feel an “incredible amount of shame” that comes with what they’ve been made to do.
“They don’t self-identify,” she said. “It takes a while for them to realize they’re even a victim.”
Melissa Teferra, licensed clinical supervisor for the community action team at Child Guidance Center, said trafficking victims are very oppositional and don’t comply with services. They have a hard time trusting people, push their providers away and deny they’ve been through trauma at all.
“You really have to take a long time to see beyond what they’re saying,” Teferra said.
There are five safe houses in the state, but none of them are located in Jacksonville, Markman-Sayar said. These safe houses only serve female victims. Anderson said DCF is seeing more and more male victims — about 15 percent of cases investigated — and it remains “very difficult” to find safe placements for them.
Michelle Clowe, the anti-trafficking program manager for World Relief Jacksonville, said her organization has helped settled 33 victims of trafficking locally. They’re both men and women, victims of labor and sex trafficking. They are first granted temporary legal status when they agree to participate in the prosecution of their trafficker, and can later be granted permission to bring their minor children to the United States, she said.
“It’s a long process, but it’s so rewarding,” she said.
SIGNS OF TRAFFICKING AND WAYS TO FIGHT IT
■ A child running away makes him or her susceptible to being trafficked. Children returning from running away and returning with new tattoos of diamonds, stars, dollar signs or a name on their neck or chest are a sign they may be trafficked. They also may return with new items, like clothes or jewelry, they cannot afford on their own.
■ To report suspected human trafficking, call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center at (888) 373-7888.
■ To report suspect child abuse and trafficking in Florida, call the Florida Abuse Hotline at (800) 962-2873.
■ Calls to the hotlines are confidential and no one outside the agency will know who made the report.