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Human trafficking spotlight focused on South County

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This is 21st century human trafficking. And Florida is in the thick of it.

By MELODY JAMESON

In a Pinellas County beach community, young women were held captive in a large waterfront house without clothes, money or identification, forced to work in local commercial sex trade joints strictly for the pleasure and profit of others.

In Boca Raton, more than 30 Philippine Island natives were confined in a small house, threatened with deportation, their passports and transportation tickets confiscated, forced to work at low-paying jobs theoretically to discharge debts involved in bringing them to the U.S. for a better life. Accumulating charges for their board ensured they never were free of the debt.

In South Hillsborough County last weekend, sheriff’s deputies and U.S. Border Patrol agents intercepted two women transporting five Mexican nationals illegally in this country and enroute to farms in Immokalee, ostensibly for jobs and wages, quite possibly for another outcome.

In the first instance, charges under Florida’s human trafficking statute have been lodged against three pimps. In the second, a husband and wife team operating so-called employment agencies was charged with a number of offenses from trafficking to fraud, and convicted. In the new South Hillsborough case, a drug charge has been filed and a human trafficking filing is pending as one of the women carrying $6,000 in cash resides for the moment in a Hillsborough jail. Border patrol agents took custody of the currency and the vehicle.

This is 21st century human trafficking. And Florida is in the thick of it, one of three primary U.S. human trafficking destinations. Its climate, beaches and landscape make attractive lures used to entice victims then isolated and made increasingly vulnerable by their captors, enslaved by physical, verbal and other abuses.

It targets populations least able to defend themselves – children, runaways, attractive women in need, foreign adults desperate for a chance in the U.S. It is linked to pornography and to organized crime. It is largely a cash business, and lots of it.

It’s a brutal, ugly, inhumane business with a long history. Prehistoric artifacts indicate that enslavement of and trade in human beings goes back to the hunter societies. Americans began taking an interest in “white slavery” — trafficking in women and girls – a hundred years ago, passing the country’s first laws prohibiting the practice. Today, task forces exist to inform the general public, advocate for tougher laws and provide for rescued victims.

It still happens, though, and the efforts of one of them focused on South Hillsborough in late January, human trafficking awareness month. Using a workbook developed by the Florida Regional Community Policing Institute at St. Petersburg College, members of the Clearwater Area Taskforce on Human Trafficking conducted a four-hour seminar for interested South County citizens. The taskforce covers Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough Counties.

Dewey Williams, a retired deputy police chief, and Sandra Lyth, chief executive of the Intercultural Advocacy Institute in Pinellas, took turns explaining “the many faces of human trafficking,” how it functions in Florida, the profits realized by its perpetrators and the toll taken in human lives. They were joined by Hilary Sessions, mother of Tiffany Sessions, the 20 -year-old University of Florida student who disappeared without a trace 23 years ago this month in Gainesville. The economics major’s abduction case remains open and the search for her continues as authorities consider she could have become a human trafficking victim.

For profit-making organized crime, human trafficking is second only to the drug trade, Williams and Lyth emphasized, producing an annual return to all perpetrators estimated at $32 billion. It is becoming the preferred business activity for crime syndicates around the world, they added. And on a worldwide basis, some 12 million people are in forced labor and forced prostitution, they said.

Victims often are “invisible,” perhaps in the U.S. illegally, kept physically isolated and guarded, the speakers said. They may be unable to use English, may not know where they are located and may face many cultural barriers, unaware that they have rights under American law.

They are controlled by their captors with a wide range of abuses, including beatings, burnings, rape, starvation, drug and alcohol dependency as well as threats aimed at their families, debt bondage and loss of documents proving their identities, origins and other vital information.

Victims can be found working not only in prostitution,. exotic dancing and adult clubs, but also as maids in hotels, in restaurant kitchens, in domestic service, in factories, on landscape crews and in agricultural packing plants or fields, plus as day laborers, on carnival midways and begging on public streets.

They once may have been among the millions of homeless youngsters roaming America’s cities or among the many girls and women who disappear from their home ground every year for no apparent reason or from an impoverished country where the only chance for improvement in circumstances is escape. What they have in common are needs, dreams, ambitions that can be exploited, Williams and Lyth noted.

Hilary Sessions was a speaker at the taskforce meeting.However, victims sometimes can be spotted, they also said. Human trafficking victims may lack personal items and possessions, may be without financial records and personal documents, may not have transportation or knowledge of the community. They may appear malnourished, have injuries from beatings or weapons and show signs of branding or torture. They also may be overseen by a third party who insists on interpreting or holding legal and travel documents.

As the three-county taskforce now focuses on South Hillsborough, plans are taking shape for a number of awareness programs and fund-raising projects with a range of objectives, according to June Wallace, a Kings Point resident and taskforce member.

In the near term, legislation tightening Florida’s human trafficking law – contained in SB 1880 – is making its way through the process in Tallahassee at this time, three billboards showing a man and the message “he wants to rent your daughter” are planned along interstate roadways during the August GOP convention and a WRAP – White Ribbons against Porn – campaign is set for the first week in November.

The local committee being chaired by Wallace also is putting together a speakers’ bureau to provide programs for local organizations as the men’s group at the United Methodist Church in Sun City Center is initiating a mentoring program for its boy scouts. In addition, an eight-hour training course for local law enforcement officers is being coordinated with sheriff’s office schedules.

From a longer perspective, Wallace said the groundwork for an ARTreach program as an after-school activity for middle and high school girls now is underway. The objective is to conduct classes after school hours and probably under the aegis of one of the local churches in graphic and dramatic arts designed to educate girls in avoiding human trafficking pitfalls. Supplies are being collected.

 And one of the longest range goals is development of a safe retreat for rescued trafficking victims in Central Florida, she added. Such a sheltered environment exists in Georgia, using equine therapy in a ranch-like setting to promote the emotional and psychological healing required for the trafficking victim’s successful journey back to constructive, independent living. This goal has been undertaken by a St. Petersburg-based organization called “Bridging freedom” dedicated to “restoring stolen childhoods” by finding “Solutions for Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking Victims.”

Wallace’s South County committee will be helping with fund raising for the retreat development, beginning with an event dubbed “Chair-aTea” foreseen on a Sunday in early 2013, she said. The event is to feature an especially blended tea, along with assorted delicacies, served to tables of eight, she added. The event also will include a silent auction of donated novel and unique handbags “filled with goodies” in a feature called “Purses for a Purpose.”

Yet another highlight of the event is to be a live auction of one-of-a-kind chairs created and donated by local artists. Wallace said she anticipates the chairs will materialize in the months before the slated tea so they can be displayed and viewed in prominent South County locations prior to the bidding opportunity.

Wallace can be reached by email at junemwallace@gmail.com.

Copyright 2012 Melody Jameson

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