TAMPA — Human traffickers always have relied on the naivete of teenagers, and now a grass-roots educational program is in place to warn vulnerable teens of the dangers of human trafficking and prostitution.
The Crisis Center of Tampa Bay announced Monday it has joined forces with Dunn & Co., a local advertising firm, and the Florida Coalition Against Human Trafficking to launch the campaign dubbed Drop an F-Bomb, designed to grab the attention of teens through social media.
In this case, the “F” refers to “friend,” not the more commonly used vulgarity, said Giselle Rodriguez, state outreach coordinator with the coalition.
She said the program targets at-risk teens in the Tampa Bay area, particularly kids in foster care, who are susceptible to recruitment into the sex industry.
“It’s definitely occurring,” she said. “It’s affecting our youth within the foster-care system, and we’ve also seen others not in foster care or on runaway status forced into the commercial sex industry.”
The coalition’s website says Florida has been identified as a hub for human trafficking activity. There are nearly 21 million people enslaved throughout the world, including 2.5 million in the United States, according to the coalition.
“What we’re trying to do is educate the youth about the issue,” Rodriguez said, “and let them know they do have someone they can talk to if they know a friend or a family member is in danger, or even themselves.”
The campaign is designed to show teens how pimps target and manipulate risk-taking young girls into prostitution, and to encourage friends of potential victims to talk about their relationships and to get help and advice by calling 211. Callers can remain anonymous.
Previously, programs targeted adults, Rodriguez said.
“They all were geared more toward adults and how to identify kids at risk,” she said, but Drop an F-Bomb is different.
“This is one reason we provocatively named the campaign; to reach the kids,’’ she said. ““The website has nodules and quick-bit information that is easy to retweet or to post on a Facebook page. It’s quick and really captures their attention.
“We know some adults, when they hear the name of this campaign, will raise their eyebrows,” she said, “But we know kids who like to take risks, do things adults frown upon, will look at it.”
The website and 211 telephone hot line is up and running, she said.
“If someone calls that number,” she said, “they will be able to speak to someone trained on human trafficking issues.”
The Drop an F-Bomb website dispels the stereotype of what a pimp might look like and provides warning signs. The program also is on social media pages such as Facebook, Twitter (#fbomb211), Instagram and Pinterest.
The Tampa Crisis Center plays a big part of the program.
“Our mission at the Crisis Center is to ensure that no one faces crisis alone,” said David Groughton, center president and CEO, in a statement released Monday. “But for the 200,000 U.S. citizens, mostly young girls, who are trafficked each year in this country, isolation is the hallmark of their days. Insulated from family, friends and people who truly care for them, victims of trafficking are subject to abuse, degradation and despair — alone. We want to change that, which is why we are initiating this campaign to stop sex trafficking.”
The campaign is funded by the Crisis Center’s Women In Action group and the Lightning Community Heroes program.
Over the past two years, Florida lawmakers have enacted laws to help protect victims of human trafficking.
The Florida Safe Harbor Act of 2012 allowed sexually exploited children to be treated as dependent children rather than delinquent children. It amended state law to make child prostitution the abuse of a child, rather than a criminal act by the child.
Last year, lawmakers again addressed human trafficking, passing legislation that allows victims to petition for erasure of any conviction for certain offenses committed as a victim of human trafficking.
This year, at least six bills addressing human trafficking have been filed in the legislative session, and two were sent by the Legislature to the governor to sign.
Most are minor tweaks to the Safe Harbor Act, refining the definition of sexual abuse of a child, addressing victim privacy and access to court records, and allowing victim relocation assistance.