Perhaps Heather (a pseudonym) slipped through the cracks in the foster care system. Maybe she was a runaway, or a girl struggling with identity and self-esteem issues. Maybe she was just trying to escape from a home where domestic violence, drug use or sexual abuse finally became too much to bear.
They met her at the bus station and were kind. Offering shelter, understanding and sympathy, they loved her and would take care of her. In return, she trusted and loved them.
Then something changed. They used her trust and love to manipulate her. Alcohol, drugs and beatings were a few of the tools they used to force her into prostitution. Her "quota" was $300 a night. To reach her nightly quota she would have to endure 10 to 30 sexual encounters. If she didn't make her quota, she would be beaten unmercifully as "a lesson to the other girls."
She was only 13.
Florida is blessed to be a destination state. Theme park family vacations, business conferences, weddings, sporting events and the natural beauty of our beaches entice thousands of visitors a day. Unfortunately, Florida also draws visitors for a far less attractive reason: child sex trafficking. Our beautiful state is ranked third in the nation, just behind California and Texas, for this dubious honor.
Early on a recent morning the Hillsborough County Commission on the Status of Women (COSW) hosted a forum. The topic: the sex trafficking of minors. Survivors, advocates, law enforcement, faith-based organizations and community leaders met to share experiences and expertise and to develop community-based solutions to the crime of child sex trafficking.
Acting as community liaison in bringing together like-minded individuals and organizations, the COSW fired the opening salvo in the fight to end this vicious crime against children in the Tampa Bay area. Together with the Fall Forum's generous sponsors — the Hillsborough County Board of County Commissioners, Athena Society, Hillsborough County League of Women Voters, HTV, Kiwanis Club of Tampa and The University of Tampa — the COSW begs you to join in this effort.
Imagine the fear and hopelessness suffered by the children trapped in this horror. Who knew this was happening here in our hometown?
When Pam Iorio, former mayor of Tampa and interim executive director of the Children's Board of Hillsborough County; Det. James McBride, director of the Clearwater/Tampa Bay Area Task Force on Human Trafficking; and Laura Hamilton, from the Clearwater Police Department and Department of Justice Human Trafficking Task Force, finished speaking, we knew the facts. We were horrified, indignant and committed to saving these children.
Education and action are the solutions. According to the FSU Center for Advancement of Human Rights, at any given moment there are 30,000 to 40,000 pre-teen and teenage runaways in Florida. They are tremendously vulnerable to exploitation by pimps or to abuses in Florida's adult entertainment industry.
Advocates note the "recruiting" of runaway or throw-away children for sexual exploitation is increasingly done on the street, at schools, in malls, online through MySpace and Facebook, and even outside juvenile courts. It takes a trafficker 90 seconds to evaluate the weaknesses of a vulnerable child.
The National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway, and Throwaway Children (NISMART-2) indicates that one out of three of these children will be lured and forced to prostitute within 48 hours of being on their own.
Our community must forge partnerships with the school system, the faith community and the business community in the effort to identify and reach out to children at risk. This is our community. These are our children. They need our protection.
If you suspect a child might be victimized, pick up the phone and make a call:
We'll say it again. This is our community. These are our children. They need our protection. The COSW's forum was just the beginning. As a community, we must use every tool and resource available to identify, rescue and provide a safe haven for the child victims of sex trafficking.
Heather could be your daughter, son, grandchild, niece, nephew or the kid next door. Please don't turn your back.
To learn more and to find out how to become involved or to request a speaker, please contact Dotti Groover-Skipper, Community Awareness chair, Tampa Bay Community Campaign Against Human Trafficking at (813) 417-1648.