Florida is ranked number three in the U.S. for the number of calls received at the nation’s human trafficking hotline. To curb that trend, state and local officials have worked with lawmakers over the years to put new laws in place. And, a newly-formed council is hatching plans to build on the state’s past progress and propose new legislation for next year.
According to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, seven percent of the human trafficking related calls to its national human trafficking hotline is coming from Florida. That’s put the state in the number three spot, which Attorney General Pam Bondi says has a silver lining.
“You heard we’re third in the number of calls to the national human trafficking hotline. It’s good in a way, in that, that means a lot of awareness has been brought to it in Florida. So, we’re receiving a lot of calls,” said Bondi.
Bondi—who’s made anti-trafficking efforts a main priority—is now the head of the Statewide Council on Human Trafficking, which recently convened for the first time in Tallahassee. Made up of various backgrounds, the goal of the 15-member council is to work together to help put an end to human trafficking in Florida.
“People think the majority of these children are undocumented immigrants and many are, and they are just as much a victim as anyone else. But, we’re being told that the majority of them are from within our country. A lot of the kids are runaways, a lot of the kids have been bumped from foster home to foster home, a lot of the kids have aged out of foster care and have nowhere to go, they end up in strip clubs, they’re immediately addicted to drugs to keep them captive,” added Bondi.
Building on that, Miami Dade Assistant State Attorney Susan Dechovitz says she’d like to see legislation that outlines new ways to present evidence that helps prevent further victimization for those trafficked.
“We’re trying to create other forms of evidence…So that when we have a victim who we cannot rely on because of their psychological condition, that we want to develop the cyber evidence, you know that line that is not becoming tried yet? ‘if a girl won’t talk, her cell phone will,’” said Dechovitz.
Also on the panel is Martin County Sheriff William Snyder, who’s a former Republican lawmaker. He helped author legislation in the House in 2011 dealing with human trafficking. Those laws remain on the books today. But, Snyder says now, Florida’s current trafficking statutes need some tightening. He says he’d first like to see increased penalties for those who use the services of trafficked females.
“And, then the other one where we have a tremendous problem with in the massage industry where I think some of our worst trafficking occurs. We have a hard time, based on the wording of the solicitation statute itself, they really have really figured out a way to go about their business, almost impervious to law enforcement itself by the way they do it,” said Snyder.
Others want more of a focus on labor trafficking, not just sex trafficking. And, according to Terry Coonan, there’s more labor trafficking victims throughout Florida than sex trafficking victims. He’s the Executive Director of Florida State University’s Center for the Advancement of Human Rights, who Bondi calls the “Human Trafficking Guru.”
“Some of that is due to the nature of labor trafficking,” said Coonan. “Typically, it is a subcontractor that is the trafficker, but it is a large U.S. corporation or business either looking the other way or choosing not to ask too many questions that goes for the low bid, the low subcontract, which is actually based on slave labor. And, we continue to see cases throughout our resort and hotel industries, we continue to see it in agriculture, we see it in restaurants around Florida—a number of places where trafficking continues to thrive.”
Still, he says Florida has made some strides, including in the courts with several convicted traffickers receiving life sentences for their crimes. But, he says there are still some gaps that need to be filled, like providing more privileges for Trafficking Victims’ Advocates who represent victims as well as allowing victims to sue.
“We need to have trafficking victims that have the ability to sue their traffickers for punitive damages. What we understand both here in Florida and around the country is it’s not enough to go after what we might call the ‘low hanging fruit,’ the low level traffickers. We have to work our way up the trafficking chain. We have to get at the assets, and that’s very, very true of massage enterprises. It’s very, very true of the organized crime syndicates that we’re increasingly seeing here in Florida,” added Coonan.
And, Bondi says what she’s heard from the stakeholders so far is encouraging.
“So, what we’re trying to do here today is develop a comprehensive program because you heard you can’t just put these victims here in a safe house. They need drug counseling, medical treatment. They truly need psychological counseling, and they also need to become strong survivors where they can testify at trial and not be scared of these absolute monsters who are capturing them. And, so we’re going to do everything in our power to lock these monsters up for as long as possible and protect our victims,” said Bondi.
Bondi’s next step is to split the 15-member council into three groups, and they’re next planned meeting is set for later in the Fall.