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Thursday, Mar 21, 2019
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Advocates help teens escape the sex trade

She was a 15-year-old runaway who just wanted to go home. A woman at a bus stop offered her help and a place to stay. The woman's friend, Eric "Santana" Bell, drove the teen to a recreational vehicle parked in East Tampa's Highland Pines neighborhood, a place of cinderblock homes with burglar bars. According to court documents, he sexually assaulted her in the RV, took provocative photos and posted them on the Internet, claiming she was 18 and ready to party. He had several guns and threatened the teen with his pit bull and Rottweiler if she failed to collect enough money from the men responding to the ad, court documents say. Bell was arrested in 2011 and later pleaded guilty to multiple charges.
Not that long ago, that 15-year-old girl also might have been charged — with prostitution. Although children who have been victims of sexual abuse are considered blameless, the same standard does not necessarily apply to minors who are victims of sex trafficking. People associate the phrase with women from other countries forced into prostitution here. But hundreds of thousands of victims are children, some as young as 11, who were born in the United States. And while programs are in place to help foreign victims, American-born adolescents typically have been regarded as criminals. "More often than not, they would be arrested and spend a night in juvenile detention, then be back on the street in no time," says Greg Christopher, an FBI agent based in Tampa who leads an underage sex trafficking task force of officers from the Tampa police department, the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office and others from across central Florida. "Sometimes they were even bonded out by their pimps," he says, returning to the men who sweet-talked them, coerced them with promises of refuge or beat them into submission. In April, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder declared domestic sex trafficking a "national crisis." No one knows how many children are victimized each year in this country. One estimate sets the number at 300,000, but the FBI believes the crime is significantly underreported. The average age at which victims first are exploited, usually by an older man, is 12 to 14 for girls and 11 to 13 for boys. Most are runaways, officials say. Nationwide, law enforcement officers have begun changing how they treat prostituted children, more often viewing them as victims, although often hostile and uncooperative ones. Recognition has grown that they need trauma counseling and protection from pimps and "the life," not a criminal record. The Tampa/Clearwater/Orlando area is a hotbed of child trafficking, with Interstate 4 as a major conduit. The crime is linked to massage and escort services, private dancing, major sporting events and tourist destinations — all prevalent here. Few of the children troll Nebraska Avenue, Tampa's traditional spot for prostitutes. These days, online classified ads searchable by city sell "escort services" alongside bicycles and antiques. The ads say such services are provided by women 18 and older, although photographs often depict younger girls. Since the task force began a little more than three years ago, more than 60 Tampa children have been rescued. The problem is figuring out what to do with them. In June, Gov. Rick Scott signed two bills, effective Jan. 1, that stiffen penalties for adults who traffic children and provide a way for law enforcement to send the children to the Department of Children & Families, not juvenile detention. "Human trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery," Scott said in a prepared statement about the Safe Harbor Act and Human Trafficking bills. "We must do everything possible to protect the victims of this detestable practice and offer them a chance for a healthy and safe future. We will not hesitate to bring the criminals responsible for these crimes to justice." Previously, DCF could get involved only if the children were exploited by a parent or caregiver, often in exchange for drugs. This is the case in a good number of the calls the FBI task force receives, Christopher says. Because DCF handles the cases, the FBI doesn't count those children in its estimates of exploited children. The new law says DCF must determine whether the children would benefit from placement in safe houses that will provide counseling and a secret location secure from pimps who might try to abduct them or help them flee. Although a couple of safe houses exist in Florida, none of them is in the central part of the state. Christopher says the task force typically relocates victims to homes in New York, Georgia and other parts of the country. "We really need someplace to put them here," he says. Natasha Nascimento, founder of advocacy group Redefining Refuge, is working with volunteers to ready a house in Tampa specifically for girls who have been recovered from trafficking. There are fewer than 100 such beds nationwide; this home will provide eight. "Sex trafficking is sexual abuse times 10," says Nascimento, who was sexually abused as a child but not trafficked. "Often these girls are running away from childhood abuse, then they get into drug use and prostitution. You keep seeing this same pattern." She says she wants to tell girls "they are not a statistic of their experience," adding that her faith and family helped her overcome the abuse. Redefining Refuge hopes to open the house, donated by West Florida Wholesale Properties, in November. It will be staffed 24 hours a day. "People think this is a foreign problem," says Nascimento, who hails from South Africa. "It is not. I'm not trying to scare people, but to educate them. They want to believe it is not our neighborhood, not our state. It is." Helping the girls can be complicated, difficult and frustrating, say those who work with them. Foster homes and group homes simply do not work, says the FBI's Christopher. The girls often are too traumatized for typical teenage interactions, and their problems are usually too big for foster parents to handle. Part of the problem stems from the dynamics between the children and the men who exploit them. Most of the victims are female. "Being a pimp is this whole lifestyle," Christopher says. "They think they're so smooth, so sly. So often, when they plead out, their first statement is, 'I'm just runnin' ho's.' Like, what's the big deal." The Safe Harbor Act sets fines for perpetrators from $500 up to $5,000, money that DCF can use to fund safe houses. The new law doesn't address those who pay for sex, many of whom don't realize the children are underage, Christopher says. While some of the girls are trafficked via gangs, the task force has seen more white-collar men turn to trafficking. Some prostitute one girl, others many. Often pimps are the sons of pimps or prostitutes. The men follow proven methods of coercion, called "turning them out," Christopher says. "In the FBI, we say we have 'gorilla pimps' and 'Romeo pimps,' " he says. The first are violent and will snatch a girl off the street if he sees a money maker. The Romeo pimp is skilled at seeing what vulnerable girls need. "He tells her how beautiful she is. It doesn't take much to get a 15-year-old girl goo-goo eyed," Christopher says. "Parents definitely need to know who their kids are talking to online." Connie Rose, 56, of Tampa says she was raped by her father at a young age. "He told me it was a cultural thing, that Greek fathers teach their daughters about sex and mothers teach their sons," she says. "It was all I knew." Eventually, when she realized it was not typical, she kept the "dirty little secret." Her father, who died in 2008, also abused her physically. At age 14, she told him to stop. He agreed, but only if she would have sex with his friends, she says. She did. In the days before the Internet, he put her in beauty pageants and took pictures to show the "johns," she says. By day, she was a Dragonette dancer at Jefferson High; by night, "he rented me out for one or two hours," she says. She's now the founder of Victim to Survivor, which tries to help women who were trafficked as children, as well as other victims. They need help to get over the trauma they've experienced, she says. When the girls are first picked up, some are grateful to be rescued, Christopher says. "But others spit in your face, kick and punch you," he says. "You just keep showing them that you are somebody who actually cares about them." Still, about half will go back to the life as soon as they can. Either they long to return to their "boyfriends," or they are too afraid of their pimps to resist them. Nascimento says she expects many of the girls to run away from the group home. "Our hope is that they will remember we are here for them," she says. "We'll just have to hope that they come back." If you suspect a minor is a victim of sex trafficking — even if you see a girl who looks too young to be on the street — call the FBI task force at (813) 253-1000.


Two legislative bills signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott impose tougher penalties for criminals who engage in human trafficking and provide more support for sexually trafficked children. They take effect Jan. 1.


* Increases the maximum fine for someone who solicits a prostitute from $500 to $5,000.

* Amends definition of sexual abuse of a child to include engaging in prostitution and participating in sex trafficking.

* Allows law enforcement discretion to deliver sexually exploited children to DCF, rather than arresting them, and authorizes DCF to place the child into an appropriate short-term safe house.

* Requires DCF to assess sexually exploited children and determine if placement in a short term safe house is appropriate, to generate specific tracking reports tracking the needs of human trafficking victims and the ability to serve those victims, and to include services for sexually exploited children in each circuit.

* Provides for training for law enforcement officials who are likely to encounter sexually exploited children.


* Expands the jurisdiction of the Statewide Prosecutor to include human trafficking cases.

* Increases criminal penalties, mostly to are first-degree felonies.

* Adds sex traffickers to the list of offenders that can be designated as sex offenders and sex predators.

* Allows seizure and forfeiture of property used, attempted to be used, or intended to be used in the trafficking of victims.

[email protected] (813) 259-8264

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