Advocates, Survivors, Urge Floridians To Remain Vigilant In Spotting Human Trafficking
Children are still being trafficked in Florida. The Tallahassee Police Department recently announced more than 170 arrests stemming from a two-year child human trafficking investigation. Florida has the 3rd highest amount of trafficking cases reported in the U.S. Survivors and advocates want to raise awareness.
Tallahassee Police Chief Lawrence Revell says the investigation was the largest of its kind he's seen at the department. It expanded past Leon County to Mississippi and Alabama. Case investigator Elizabeth Bascom says it started when they saw pictures of a child on a website that advertises sex for money:
"This was a child, you know, 13 turning 14-year-old child who worked through her birthday as if it did not exist. Who worked through Thanksgiving while we sat at tables and enjoyed our families. Who worked through Christmas like it wasn't even there. How do you explain how horrific that would be for a child to not have any of that?"
Bascom says children who are sexually exploited are often vulnerable to manipulation:
"It's a symbol of giving you something you need: money for your family to buy food, clothing that your parents can't afford to buy you, shoes. There's a romancing period to it, and then the manipulation starts to turn to something more forceful and more sinister. And then they can keep you there by threatening members of your family or their survival, or if a child gets hooked on drugs, they always have that over them."
Sometimes, families are involved in trafficking their children. It's something Savannah Parvu says she went through growing up in Central Florida. Parvu says both her parents were drug addicts and alcoholics. When Parvu was 11, she says her mother began prostituting herself for drugs:
"Her drug dealer offered her $10 for me instead of for her. And so, that was the first time that she sold me."
Parvu says after that, she continued to be trafficked even after she went into foster care at 13 years old:
"I never talked about anything that happened because I was always told that it was my fault. I would be the one who's in trouble. And I didn't really know that it wasn't normal because that was all that I knew."
Parvu now serves as treasurer on the Florida Alliance to End Human Trafficking. She says if there was more awareness of human trafficking, her abuse could have ended sooner. She encourages people to call the human trafficking hotline:
"Even if you're in a store, and you see somebody that you're not sure if they're okay and you're able to ask them if they're okay, I know, to me, nobody ever talked to me. So, I feel like something as simple as acknowledging somebody and asking if they're okay or if they need anything that—they're probably not going to tell you they need anything. But that could give them the strength to make it another day."
Parvu says victims are often controlled by their abusers, making it difficult for them to ask for help:
"So if you're in the elevator with somebody like a girl and a man, and you talk to the girl, she is probably not going to respond, the man is probably going to respond. If you ask her how she is or something, the man is probably going to respond because she's not allowed to talk."
Sen. Lauren Book (D-Plantation) has been an advocate for human trafficking survivors. Book says when it comes to preventing children from falling victim, early education is critical:
"Understanding that it is children in our school who do fall victim to predatory behaviors, that's an important piece. I think that is a prevention measure that is important because it is those young kids, and it does start at a very early age."
In 2019, Florida became the first state in the nation to require child trafficking prevention education for K-12 students. But Book says education needs to go beyond the classroom:
"Providing materials to parents, guardians, so that they understand that these are very real realities and how predators of these kind tend to prey upon children because there is typically a modus operandi of these type of predators and guardians, parents need to be vigilant too in that equation."
The Florida Department of Education's website has more information on spotting human trafficking and reporting it.