TAMPA — Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi joined a cadre of law enforcement officials Friday morning to announce a new statewide program aimed at preventing child sex trafficking.
The new program’s theme is “Instant Message, Instant Nightmare.” It encourages parents to keep close tabs on their children’s Internet usage to avoid contacts with potential traffickers.
The combination of billboards, bus-stop ads and similar outdoor displays puts an emphasis on social media, which has become a route by which traffickers ensnare their victims.
“It makes it easy for these predators to target kids that are vulnerable,” said Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor.
She joined Bondi, along with Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd and other law enforcement officers from across the Tampa region to announce the new program.
Florida is third in the country for human trafficking events, Bondi said. The Tampa area has seen several major ex trafficking arrests and convictions recently, including one man who held 10 girls in effective bondage.
Weylin O. Rodriguez was sentenced on March 2 to life plus five years for his role in sex trafficking. One of his victims was a 15-year-old girl kidnapped from Ybor City.
Rodriguez tattooed his victims and treated them like chattel.
“In 2013 we had slavery,” Judd said. “And that is unacceptable.”
A recent analysis by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a group that track human trafficking, found that the number of federal prosecutions for child sex trafficking has quadrupled since 2008.
At the same time, the number of trafficking prosecutions in the Tampa area has fallen.
But that doesn’t mean federal, state and local law enforcement has moved on.
“We intend to keep prosecuting these individuals,” said Lee Bentley III, acting U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Florida. “But we can’t prosecute our way out of this situation.”
Bondi called on parents and other adults to keep an eye out for predators and potential victims.
While the new campaign focused on children with parents, Bondi acknowledged kids often fall into trafficking as runaways. In those cases, victims can develop strong loyalty to the people exploiting them, Judd said.
Bondi said her office works with trucking companies, convenience stores and other places trafficking victims either work or shop.
“What we’re dealing with today is people’s kids who are being lured through the Internet,” she said.
Bondi recommended parents take several steps to protect their children from potential traffickers:
Restrict use of the computer to the living room or other area of the house where other family members are present.
Know their child’s screen names and passwords, even if you have the child write them down and put them in a sealed envelope. If anything happens, parents will be able to access their child’s accounts to trace who he or she has been communicating with.
Use the computer’s parental control settings to check the Internet history. Look for warning signs in your children, such as: mood swings, significantly older new friends and new gifts that parents didn’t purchase.