January is Human Trafficking Awareness Month, and North Florida experts are hoping to use the time to spread more awareness about common misconceptions and what the public can do to help.
Robin Hassler Thompson is a member of the Big Bend Coalition Against Human Trafficking. Speaking on WFSU’s Perspectives show Thursday, she outlined some false impressions many have about the crime’s victims.
“For example, one of the myths I think that’s out there is that either victims are children or victims of sex trafficking or they’re from another country, but we’ve had cases here in Florida,” she said. “In Palatka, there was a big case where the trafficker’s farm labor operation targeted homeless African American men, who were dependent on drugs and alcohol, substance abuse dependent.”
Hassler Thompson says the labor traffickers in that case then visited homeless shelters around the state.
“…picked them up in these white vans, brought them to the farm in Palatka and enslaved them, forced them to pick vegetables and promised to pay them with drugs and alcohol, and indeed, when the FBI did that investigation, found out they were keeping those workers enslaved by making sure they stay drug dependent,” she added.
Hassler Thompson says what needs to change is how citizens see human trafficking. And, it’s something she adds she’s working on in the Big Bend area because people don’t realize trafficking is common in rural areas.
“We talk to people in government,” she continued. “For example, if they do restaurant inspections, if they go back into the kitchen and see a cot, people shouldn’t be sleeping in a kitchen or in the back of a nail salon. If you see people looking like they’re living there, that’s a clue. So, on the surface, it might look okay. But, when you go just under the surface, you might see something strange.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Frank Williams in Gainesville says there’s a need to change perception by the regular public, but also to change the minds of law enforcement—despite a new law protecting victims.
“One of the misconceptions is that the victims in these cases are doing this willingly,” said Williams. “What they don’t understand—and actually, for a long time, what I didn’t understand—is the aspect of force and fraud and coercion that has led a lot of these children and young women to engage in this type of activity, if you will. And, the fact that we have kind of stigmatized an element of society, essentially women involved in prostitution, into believing that they are the persons who are most culpable, when in fact they are the victims themselves.”
And, Bethany Gilot, the statewide human trafficking director of the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, says with regard to sex trafficking—in particular—another common myth is trafficked victims stay in their situation only because of threats and coercion.
“I know a lot of the young ladies who I used to work with…it wasn’t so much threats as it is ‘I’m your boyfriend. I love you, and if you love me, you’ll do this,’” said Gilot. “Even though the trafficker is abusing them and the trafficker may be asking them to do things that very much hurts them and is not what they want to do, they’re still seeing this as a loving bond and that they don’t want to turn on that person. They don't want to testify against this person who they love and they think loves them. So, the traffickers are really looking for ways to manipulate those that they’re victimizing.”
Gilot says a big way to combat the trafficker’s manipulation is supporting victims and always being consistent.
Meanwhile, the Big Bend Coalition Against Human trafficking is hosting a number of Tallahassee events this month, including a 5k run, seminars, community forums, film screenings, and art contests.
For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter: @SaschaCordner.