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Anti-Human Trafficking Gains: Awareness Strides, Expanded Role Of State Agencies

MGN Online

A statewide two-day summit in Tampa to combat human trafficking is now over. And, while stakeholders agree Florida has come a long way in making people more aware of the issue, they say there’s still much work to do to address the practice.

Governor Rick Scott says the first person he ever met who was trafficked had the same name as his daughter, Allison.

“And you can’t imagine,” he said, during the summit. “You think it’s some far away thing, but she was trafficked by her family in Long Island. She’s a little bit younger than my daughter, 23 when I met her. So, she was trafficked from the time she was six-years-old.”

He says he’s proud of all the legislation and other efforts so far to combat human trafficking. But, he adds the state can do more to help victims.

“I’ve had the opportunity to meet people who’ve actually had the opportunity to turn their life around, and that’s wonderful,” Scott added. But, there are so, so many people that we have not been able to help yet for a lot of reasons: they don’t know to come forward, the system still needs a lot of work. But, what I’m proud of is the state is taking a leadership role.”

And, Scott says he’s come a long way since he’s gotten more aware of the issue with the help of Attorney General Pam Bondi.

Bondi is in charge of the Statewide Council on Human Trafficking, which hosts the annual summit.

She says it’s great more and more groups are learning to see the signs, including medical professionals, truck drivers, and law enforcement.

She recalls a Collier County Sheriff’s deputy was able to identify a human trafficking victim during a routine traffic stop—which led to a much bigger bust.

“So, during the investigation, it ended up identifying six women who had been illegally smuggled into our country, after of course, being promised legal jobs, but what happened to them? They were immediately taken into captivity, addicted to drugs, and forced to work as commercial sex slaves—performing sex acts on 25 to 45 men every day, seven days a week. The victims in this case ranged from ages 25 to 35,” Bondi stated.

Sex trafficking has been in the spotlight, but stakeholders want to shift the conversation a bit towards labor trafficking victims, who haven’t gotten as much attention.

This year, Marty Stubblefield took part in an agency heads panel at the Summit. The Florida Department of Health’s Deputy Director says his agency is making strides to combat labor trafficking.

“We also have investigators who are out there looking at migrant farms every day, and potentially come in contact with labor trafficking people,” said Stubblefield. “In our refugee health areas, we do vaccinations for people coming into the country, and we potentially see victims there.”

Jesse Panuccio says his agency is also making similar gains. He heads the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity—the state’s job agency—which has access to places where labor trafficking may occur. He says their efforts center around education and outreach.

And, so we try do to that by educating employers so that they can spot this happening not only in perhaps managers within their own company, but also other employers,” said Panuccio. But, then also, workers themselves. We help process the H2 Visas, and we help fill job orders. So, the more we can educate the people on the front lines of that work, the better able they are to spot this and report it. And, of course, we have the farmworker hotline.”

And, he adds there are multiple reasons why businesses should care.

“First, it’s an evil practice,” Panuccio said. “It’s just inconsistent with our values as a society. But, if you want to be more bottom-line about it, of course, if you’re a business, why should you care why everyone else is doing this? Well, it has a lot of negative effects for society around you. It makes the overall labor pool worse. And, of course, if you want to be very crass about it, it’s an unfair competitive advantage. We want businesses competing and following the rules, and especially rules like this that protect our most core values.”

Florida is ranked third for the number of calls received by the national human trafficking hotline. And, officials as well as multiple stakeholders hope to continue working on placing more of an emphasis on victims. One area they’re looking into putting more money toward getting more victims into safe homes, and not treated as criminals.

For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter: @SaschaCordner.

Sascha Cordner has more than ten years of public radio experience. It includes working at NPR member station WUFT-FM in Gainesville for several years. She's worked in both radio and TV, serving in various capacities as a reporter, producer and anchor. She's also a graduate of the University of Florida with a bachelor's degree in telecommunications. She is the recipient of 15 awards from the Associated Press, Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), and Edward R. Murrow. Her award-winning stories include her coverage on the infamous “Dozier School for Boys” and a feature titled "Male Breast Cancer: Lost in the Sea of Pink." Currently, Sascha serves as the host and producer of local and state news content for the afternoon news program "All Things Considered" at WFSU. Sascha primarily covers criminal justice and social services issues. When she's not reporting, Sascha likes catching up on her favorite TV shows, singing and reading. Follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter:@SaschaCordner.