TAMPA — The Tampa Bay area is a top destination for human traffickers in Florida, experts say, but the enormity of the threat has barely scratched the community’s collective consciousness.
That may be about to change. Friday will see the first of a series of events aimed at mobilizing the public and uniting different civic groups that have worked on the issue. The Abolish (child sexual slavery) Movement will kick off the events with a Saturday rally at Lykes Gaslight Park in downtown Tampa.
“Florida is considered third in the nation in sex trafficking, labor trafficking and domestic servitude,” said Dotti Groover-Skipper, chairwoman of the Community Campaign Against Human Trafficking of Tampa Bay. “The Tampa Bay area is a top destination for traffickers, looking for people to traffic or to bring victims here.”
Human trafficking is the illegal holding of people against their will and selling or renting them out for involuntary sex or labor. Child sexual slavery caters to pedophiles and is international in scope.
The problem has been festering here since before 2004 when federal authorities created the “Rescue and Restore” program, designed to recruit and train local police, medical and social service providers in how to recognize and help human trafficking victims. Tampa was one of four cities, along with Phoenix, Philadelphia and Atlanta, chosen as a site for the campaign.
Then in 2006, local police created the Clearwater/Tampa Bay Area Human Trafficking Task Force after local Hispanics reported the problem existed in their communities.
Despite those efforts, child sex slavery continues to proliferate in the area, according to government authorities. Groover-Skipper said at least 100 civic, non-profit and faith-based groups are working on the issue.
“The new part is all the different groups are coming together and have finally developed an awareness campaign,” said Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandy Murman. “Awareness is good if you can get people to see what the signs are so their kids don’t become victims. That’s the important thing.”
The Abolish Movement has a purple logo developed by the local AD2 advertising firm, which Groover-Skipper said has donated $400,000 worth of free branding to the campaign. Also helping in the effort is the Junior League of Tampa, which last year identified human trafficking as a priority.
The campaign will include “gritty ads” with purple as the dominant color, Groover-Skipper said, and “gorilla art,” which means anonymous art work left in public places.
“There hasn’t been a unified umbrella campaign,” she said. “Once people are aware, it will help with fund-raising for these organizations.”
Murman agreed, but said to truly abolish human trafficking in the area would probably take more law enforcement resources.
“The real work is in the investigation and prosecution, and that is something I’m going to be working really hard with the sheriff and the city of Tampa Police Department,” Murman said. “I think it will take dollars. It will probably take a minimum of five deputies to do the thorough investigation needed to track these people.”
The Saturday event at Gas Light Park will be from 4-7 p.m. and will feature Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and other elected officials, food trucks and a candlelight vigil.
Other upcoming Abolish Movement events:
Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children Training, Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at Stetson University Tampa Law Center, 1700 N. Tampa St. A three-part training series to promote awareness and education on child sex slavery. Registration is required. Contact: Shannon Martucci at (813) 272-6272.
Movie and popcorn at Sun City Center, Friday, 1-3 p.m. at Sun City Center Atrium Building, Florida Room, 945 N. Course Lane. Free popcorn and movie, “Abduction of Eden,” starring Jamie Chung and Beau Bridges.
“Freedom at the Cross Conference,” Saturday, 1-7 p.m., Bridgeway Church, 30660 Wells Road, Wesley Chapel. This men’s only conference is designed to them understand the many faces of human
trafficking and what role men can play in combating this horrific crime. Registration is required at www.2b3n.com.
Other events can be found at www.abolishmovement.com.