Hillsborough County plans to create a Committee for Human Trafficking and Prevention to lower human trafficking rates in the county. It will involve both community members and law enforcement.
“We outlawed slavery a long time ago, but it still exists domestically,” said County Commissioner Kimberly Overman about the human trafficking problem that exits in the U.S
Human trafficking is separated into two categories: labor trafficking and sex trafficking. Trafficking involves three components: force, fraud or coercion by another person.
High schoolers at risk
Leading the charge, under appointment by Commissioner Overman, is Heather Curry.
According to Curry, middle school and high school students are particularly at risk for sex trafficking. “Gaming platforms and social media are really available and often used tools for traffickers to talk to youth, and since that’s one of the main ways young people communicate, it’s a very easy avenue for traffickers,” she said.
Overman discussed similar risks linked with teen vulnerability on social media. “Teenagers post on social media that they are frustrated with their parents. The traffickers know that they feel isolated or are looking for attention. From there they are basically groomed for human trafficking,” she said.
Overman said they may later find themselves in a situation where they are forced to sleep with someone for money or with someone they don’t know.
In order to prevent sex trafficking of minors, Florida’s Board of Education passed a bill requiring K-12 schools to teach students about child trafficking prevention. Florida is third in the nation for reported trafficking cases, having 767 cases reported in 2018, with 20 % involving children according to the Florida Department of Education.
Curry said they haven’t decided what the awareness program is going to look like yet. She said she personally hopes that someone local will teach about trafficking, someone who has a good sense of what Hillsborough County schools look like.
Hillsborough County specifically, is also taking its own measures. The commitee will have two parts, one involving people in law enforcement dealing with the demand side and the other dealing with raising awareness.
On the law enforcement side is Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister, who led an undercover operation to combat human trafficking. The operations brought more than 100 arrests from between June to November 2019. They are investigating and prosecuting both traffickers and purchasers.
The other side, raising awareness, involves not only the new law requiring Education for students about sex trafficking, but also an online training which will be taken by 500,000 workers in the county. The training will about how to avoid human trafficking, what to do if they find themselves caught in it, as well as how to spot a human trafficking case.
Prostitution vs. Trafficking
There is a cultural difficulty in targeting sex trafficking in the United States. In the past, cases that may have been considered sex trafficking now, were considered as prostitution, meaning the victim was punished instead of the pimp. The difference is that sex trafficking involves force, fraud or coercion, while prostitution assumes that the person is choosing to be paid for sex.
Curry and Commissioner Overman with help from law enforcement plan to change that culture in order to punish the traffickers instead of the victims. “If you’re arrested multiple times for prostitution you not likely to trust the law enforcement. Instead, the only person you trust is the pimp that has been selling you, through their manipulation,” Overman said. “Calling it prostitution is an excuse to ignore that someone has been stripped of their dignity.”
How to help
“I think that anytime you can raise awareness of any issue, that’s really your greatest power to start with,” Curry said. “Verse yourselves on the signs to look for.” “If you see a friend who is going away for periods of time, getting in the car with an adult you don’t recognize, has health problems, a dramatic change in personality, there are lots of signs,” Commissioner Overman said. Many of these signs can be found on the National Human Trafficking Hotline.
“The key is to let children know that someone forcing you to do something you don’t want to do is not always right,” Commissioner Overman said. “Be cautious about who you trust when it comes to being coerced into something you wouldn’t normally do.”