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Predatory Human Traffickers Luring Teens and the Homeless as Cops Warn of Backyard Crisis

| August 8, 2013

Some 100,000 victims a year. (Lizzy Grafik)

Some 100,000 victims a year. (Lizzy Grafik)

A nationwide crackdown last week by the FBI on child sex trafficking yielded 159 arrests and freed 105 children — nearly all girls between 13 and 17 — but experts say it’s the tip of the iceberg.

“We’re barely scratching the surface,” Tyson Elliott, who directs the state Department of Juvenile Justice’s efforts to curb human trafficking, said Wednesday at Florida State University.

Elliott, a former detective, was speaking to about 75 police officers, clergy and social workers about human trafficking. He said that although the FBI’s 10-year Innocence Lost project has rescued 2,200 teens from forced prostitution, at least 100,000 go into it every year — by a conservative estimate.

The U.S. Department of Justice has estimated that nearly 450,000 children run away from home each year and that one-third will be lured into prostitution within 48 hours of leaving home.

“Anybody can be a pimp or a trafficker,” Elliott said. “Get past the stereotype. (The Department of Children and Families) has been taking reports on parents prostituting out their daughter for drug money forever.”

Trafficking human beings for forced labor or prostitution is a $32 billion global industry. It’s vast, yet invisible to most people — including many law enforcement and social service agencies.

But now, with Florida ranked third in the nation for human trafficking, state and local authorities say they’re learning to identify the crime and help the victims.

“These are children that actually don’t have a biological family to go back to,” said Terry Coonan, director of the FSU Center for the Advancement of Human Rights, which co-sponsored the event. “They are the prime victims. And we’ve seen cases all over this state — north, south and central Florida — where these children are being exploited.”

Last week’s FBI sweep recovered three children in Tampa and arrested four pimps in Miami and one in Jacksonville, according to an FBI news release.

Elliott said that of all victims of human trafficking, runaway teens are the most at risk, especially if they’ve left homes roiled by domestic violence or child abuse.

“If you’re a teenage girl being molested by your stepfather and you run away, you’ve probably got some vulnerabilities that can be exploited,” he said.

That’s the heart of the matter, both men said. Whether in forced labor, domestic slavery or child prostitution, the way to spot trafficking is to look for someone controlled by another.

“Do workers arrive and leave in the same vehicle with a handler?” Coonan asked. “Does the boss try to speak on behalf of the worker? Is a young woman being checked in by an older male?”

He described Florida trafficking cases, how the traffickers operated and who the victims were.

For instance, he said, in 2005, Ronald Evans was arrested for luring homeless people from shelters to a forced labor camp in East Palatka. Evans paid them with alcohol and crack cocaine.

Coonan showed a photo of emaciated black men after the federal raid that freed them.

“They were very, very deliberately targeted,” he said. “It was a shock to us in the human rights community that African-Americans could once again be targeted for slavery.”

Under Coonan’s direction, the Center for the Advancement of Human Rights provides pro-bono legal aid to trafficking victims and, at the Legislature’s request, has produced several reports on the subject.

In May Gov. Rick Scott signed a pair of bills (HB 1325 and HB 1327) creating a legal process for human-trafficking victims to get their criminal records expunged — typically for prostitution charges. The new laws, which take effect Jan. 1, only apply to crimes committed while the victims were being forced, threatened or coerced.

In June, Scott signed HB 7005, intended to crack down on shady massage establishments that are fronts for sex trafficking. The bill would prevent the operation of massage establishments between midnight and 5 a.m., although it has exceptions for businesses such as health facilities and hotels that might offer massage services.

Congress is considering legislation that would require state law enforcement and child-welfare agencies to identify children lured into sex trafficking as victims of abuse and neglect. That would make them eligible for protections and services.

Coonan said now that Florida lawmakers have given prosecutors more tools, it’s time for the next step.

“What we’ve realized is: Now it’s community awareness that may be the missing piece,” he said. “So our efforts here today are a step in that direction, to try to get our communities better informed about how they can identify trafficking and especially identify victims and assist in their care.”

Tallahassee Police Chief Dennis Jones was among the attendees, as were several of his investigators.

“The victims are right here in our back yard,” Jones said. “That’s why we need more of these trainings and seminars. …It’s not just a law enforcement problem.”

–Margie Menzel, News Service of Florida

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9 Responses for “Predatory Human Traffickers Luring Teens and the Homeless as Cops Warn of Backyard Crisis”

  1. ANONYMOUSAY says:

    This has been going on unfortunately forever, yes even in the good old USA. So why all the fuss now??? I’ll tell the you. The government needs a “new war”, drugs and prisons in this country aren’t making the doe anymore for them. Neither is attacking an all rich country an option. So now they want to reach across borders to bust up the sex trade, how convenient. They can start in DC, the rich and the powerful don’t understand the word NO, always end up wanting things that are off limits no matter how sick.

    • NortonSmitty says:

      You mean like this: ?

      It’s a documentary about the Franklin Savings Sex Scandal. Where a pedophile ring took orphans from Boys Town in Omaha and pimped them out to the GOP including documented visits to parties at the Bush White House. This is not some ravings of a lunatic group, this was made by the BBC and Discovery Channel. Somehow it was shown all over the world except in the US. Google it if you want print articles, but it’s all true.

  2. Shocked, I tell you... says:

    This is horrible stuff. What can the community do to help? Maybe it’s time for some stiffer sentences for this stuff, both state and federal.

    And is it just me, or is Florida a mecca for this stuff?

  3. Doesn't anyone CARE? says:

    What a very well written and informative letter Flagler Live.

    We probably walk right by some of these children and don’t even know it. This attention is good not only for law enforcement but the public as well.
    This is something you think of in third world countries, not here in the USA. But obviously it is right here and under our noses.

    I hope they get (although I know they can’t) everyone of the slimballs that are doing this not only ot the innocent children but the homeless as well. I feel so sorry for the children running away from abusive homes or kicked out by a single step father or mother that abuse that child. Where can they go? These people and I use that term loosely, look for these kids and snatch them up. Ruining their lifes forever and I’m sure a lot end up dead as well.

    What a sad & sick society we live in these days. My hats off to each law-enforcement man and-or woman that gets just one of these traffickers OFF our streets.

  4. Gia says:

    Parents cannot raise their kids properly that the main problem.

    • Rick says:

      If they really wanted to Gia, a good portion of parents could raise them properly. They’re just too unconcerned & bothered. They just think typical BS & crap are more important & relevant. I’ve witnessed it, several times. Tell me, what’s more important than your own kids?

  5. invisible eyes says:

    If this is the NSA / PRISM / DEA capabilities at work I can be convinced to support it…evil and perverted people should very very very afraid

  6. Charles Gardner says:

    I served on a federal grand jury for 12 months. It is heart wrenching to listen to human trafficking cases. Some of these girls are as young as 13 years old, most were from Mexico and Central America. I saw the worst side of human behavior in that year. Sad.

  7. A.S.F. says:

    This is an issue I think we all can get passionate about, no matter what political party you support. In the early days of my career, I worked as a House Counselor in a home for (what was tn those days called) Dependent and Neglected girls. My organization was approached by a very well-dressed, very attractive and well-spoken woman who offered to become a weekend mentor for some of the girls in my care. Of course, we used to check out everyone who volunteered in our homes carefully. It turned out that this woman worked for a pimp and their plan was to “groom” the girls to serve their ends. You’d be surprised at the depths to which human beings can sink in their quest to exploit children and other vulnerable people. I also worked with developmentally disabled people and saw some pretty awful things done to them. On the other hand, I have seen truly generous and courageous people give of themselves selflessly to make this world a better place. In this life, Ii cuts both ways. We just have to make sure that we do all we can to protect those who can’t protect themselves from the psychopaths and truly sick and twisted among us.

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