Revealing the Dark Truth About Human Trafficking in South Florida, Local Women Advocate for Victims and Fight Back

Photo caption at end of article. Photo by Justus Martin.

There is a battle hidden in plain sight for the lives of vulnerable women and youth caught in the web of human trafficking. This modern-day slavery involves the use of force, fraud or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act. Florida is ranked third in the nation for human trafficking and South Florida is one of the state’s top regions for this horrific crime.  However, there is a team of women and men, working hard to take this dark subject out of the shadows and bring it into the light. Working in a variety of organizations, they share information and network through the Broward Human Trafficking Coalition (bhtc.us) and the Human Trafficking Coalition of the Palm Beaches (htcpb.org). By dispelling myths and opening people’s eyes to the signs that someone may be a victim, they hope more people will report what they see, so the authorities can stop this injustice.

“It is important for the public to know that force, fraud and coercion do not need to involve ropes and handcuffs. A combination of psychological abuse and affection are powerful tools for coercion and are not as easily identified. And this issue does not just effect foreign nationals. It is pervasive with United States citizens as well,” points out Christina Silvestri, Anti-Human Trafficking Program Administrator for Catholic Charities of Palm Beach. Catholic Charities has a grant along with Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office to coordinate services to victims, and Christina is often among the first to be called when authorities rescue a victim.

Every year in the United States thousands of human trafficking cases are reported, but many more go unnoticed. Human trafficking is a hidden crime because victims may be afraid to come forward, or we may not recognize the signs even when it is happening right in front of us.

“There is no denying that it is happening right here in our communities,” said Laura Cusack, Human Trafficking Prevention and Education Coordinator at Place of Hope (placeofhope.com). “It’s up to each of us to do something about this. The times have changed, and traffickers are no longer just targeting the foster care kids or the runaways. They’re targeting our community kids too. Traffickers are so confident in what they can get away with; they’re hoping that you won’t notice the red flags, won’t ask extra questions, won’t call in a tip when you suspect something is going on. They thrive on our ignorance and fear of being wrong. But I really encourage everyone to not be afraid to look closer, and report what they see.”

 

When Human Trafficking Hits Home

This became all too true for Henry and Lisa Mann, when their 17-year-old daughter was targeted. She met this young man at a high school football game and Henry lamented, “He seemed like a nice guy. We welcomed him into our home, and little did I know he was a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

Her parents began to notice changes in their daughter’s behavior, that she was putting up walls. “He’d bring our daughter home after 2 a.m. and something didn’t sit right… My daughter’s phone kept ringing. I picked it up and saw people asking about money and price.” When Henry asked his daughter about it, the next morning she left with the man who she called her boyfriend and cut off all communication. Finally after the man was arrested for physical abuse, a detective brought her home. On the advice of a victim’s advocate, they made arrangements for her stay with a trusted friend out of town, but Lisa said, “He still had a mental hold on her.”

Because of their experience, Lisa and Henry Mann now operate Katallege House, a ministry of Maranatha Pentecostal Church in Hollywood, that focuses on human trafficking prevention, education and awareness. They are one of the many community partners involved in the Broward Human trafficking Coalition (BHTC), an education and awareness organization that creates a networking environment for those providing services related to human trafficking. According to Jumorrow Johnson, BHTC president and a victim’s advocate, “It’s important to talk about the risk factors and experiences that happen in children’s lives that make them prey for the predators. This includes childhood sexual abuse, incest, domestic violence, teen dating violence, low self-esteem and depression, which all can make kids susceptible to pimps and traffickers. It’s so important that parents give their children proper validation,” she stressed.

Assistant State Attorney Kristine Bradley, the sole dedicated human trafficking prosecutor for Broward County for the past two years, said, “The biggest issue I’ve seen is parents and guardians not knowing what their children are doing on their cell phones.” She explained that there are apps that can be put on phones that mimic a calculator and can hide all of their activity until a certain formula is typed in, and these apps have been their greatest source of evidence for prosecution.

Bradley admits she had a lot of “backwards” thinking when she began prosecuting these cases. “Perhaps the biggest myth is that trafficking involves people being dragged across state lines. The reality is that it’s happening in our schools and churches, and people are being recruited through social media,” she said. Some mistakenly think it’s a choice, but when you get to know the coercive techniques traffickers use against victims including glamorizing the lifestyle by flashing money around, entering into romantic relationships, seduction, violence, addictions and entrapment, it’s clear that it is not. Bradley shared how her eyes were opened when a young victim’s address was just blocks from her own childhood home, and she learned that the traffickers threatened to create a Facebook account linked to her friends and family to reveal compromising photos of the girl taken while she was under the influence of drugs if she refused to cooperate.

 

The Exploitation of Vulnerability

Char Talmadge, director of Rescue Upstream (rescueupstream.com), a ministry of Journey Church, stresses that human trafficking is essentially the exploitation of vulnerability and one of the common threads of this vulnerability is a prior history of sexual abuse. According to Talmadge, current statistics indicate that one in ten children will be sexually abused by the age of 18 and the disturbing fact is that 90 percent of the sexual abuse is perpetrated by individuals that the child knows. So the whole mantra of stranger danger doesn’t really indicate where the danger is. Rescue Upstream has a team of certified trainers for Stewards of Children, a sexual abuse prevention program. And Talmdage said, “We feel very strongly that if we can reduce some of the risks that are associated with vulnerability, we are going to have an impact on human trafficking.”

They along with other organizations such as Christ Fellowship’s Hope for Freedom Project, are bringing prevention programs into high risk middle and high schools to train youth on how traffickers work, how they use the internet and what to look for within their peer group.

Rescue Upstream also reaches out over the phone to potential human trafficking victims after identifying them over the internet, with the hopes of extending love to them and being a resource to meet physical needs while keeping their eyes open for missing children.

It was concerns over runaway youth being sexually exploited as victims of predatory adults that concerned Sarah Cummings, treatment manager for the Juvenile Assessment Team at the Broward County Juvenile Assessment Center. She is currently co-chair of STARS (Stops Trafficking and Rescue Survivors) a subcommittee of the BHTC that is solely focused on the juvenile aspects of human trafficking and has developed a human trafficking screening tool that is utilized statewide.

At Broward County’s Nancy J. Cotterman Children’s Advocacy Center and Rape Crisis Center, Holly Carotenuto was a sexual assault advocate before working in the county’s Anti-Human Trafficking Community Outreach Program to increase life skills, education and awareness to youth at risk of human trafficking. She is also co-chair of STRIPES (Stop Trafficking and Rescue Persons Exploited Through Slavery) a BHTC subcommittee that focuses on the adult extremely vulnerable 18-24 year-old population coming from foster care.

Carotenuto said she was most impacted by a young sexual assault victim who she discovered was being exploited by someone close to her. The woman was unwilling to accept services or see herself as a trafficking victim. “Sometimes we cannot rescue everyone, but we always hope that survivors know that when they are ready we are here,” she said.

As reach program coordinator for PACE Center for Girls, Tabitha Bush helps provide young women opportunities for a better future through education, counseling, training and advocacy.  She joined the fight against human trafficking as BHTC’s vice president of events and fundraising after witnessing how it affects girls and their families. “This epidemic has taken the voices of the innocent before they can begin to experience true love, value and self-worth as individuals,” Bush said. Besides education and awareness, Bush feels one of the greatest needs includes residential treatment and employment opportunities for victims and survivors of human trafficking.

Becky Dymond founded Hepzibah House in Boynton Beach to provide mental health counseling, trauma therapy and life and job skills training to give survivors another run at life.

“When I started Hepzibah House, I learned that for the women whose lives we touch, sex trafficking is almost always just one chapter in a very long list of traumatic life experiences,” said Dymond. Often victimized by a family member or someone close to them, this leaves women with trust issues embedded deep in the very fiber of the women they serve, lengthening the time needed to process the trauma they have faced. As another way to build trust, Hepzibah House is currently in the process of adding equestrian facilitated psychotherapy to the services they offer.

 

Recognize the Signs

Nova Southeastern University’s Coalition for Research and Education Against Trafficking and Exploitation (CREATE) is working to equip those in the healthcare professions with the skills to identify victims of human trafficking and train them in trauma informed care. CREATE Co-Founders Brianna Kent and Sandrine Kenney hope this will result in increased reporting and referrals to appropriate health and social services. They note that almost 80 percent of victims have seen a healthcare provider at some point, but the victim is often trauma bonded to the perpetrator and may not speak up right away. They’re hoping that providers can provide trust, kindness and support for the victim and that their health records could eventually be a record for prosecution. Starting in 2019 the Florida nursing board is requiring continuing education on human trafficking as well, they said.

Heidi Schaeffer, M.D.

Heidi Schaeffer, M.D., president of the Human Trafficking Coalition of the Palm Beaches, is passionate about educating the public and in particular healthcare practitioners abut the signs of trafficking. She received Florida’s 2017 Human Trafficking Community Advocate of the Year Award and has spoken at the U.S. Capital on the subject matter.

Signs of human trafficking can include the following.

  • Anybody not in possession of their own identification
  • Someone being forced, coerced to work or not allowed to keep their wages
  • Obvious signs of branding or large tatoos
  • Youth younger than 18 involved in sexual activities

If you suspect any of these things, make an anonymous call to the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888 and the information will be forwarded to the appropriate local authorities.

“Most cases are cracked by regular mortals like you and me who see a situation and say, ‘Oh that can’t be right’ so they make the call,” Dymond stressed.

 

January is Human Trafficking Awareness Month

Here is a list of local events where you can learn more and get involved.

 

January 17

Human and Sex Trafficking Awareness in South Florida: How to Help

Hosted by the Democratic Women’s Club of East Broward from 6:30 – 8:30 p.m.at Modern Sixties Wine Lounge, 1828 E Sunrise Blvd, Fort Lauderdale. Contact: [email protected].

 

January 22

Place of Hope’s Inaugural Human Trafficking Awareness Luncheon and Advocate Awards

Hosted by St. Lucy Catholic Church, Highland Beach, from 11 a.m. – 1 p.m. Register at placeofhoperinker.org/event/htlunch2019/

 

January 26

“A Broken Chain”

Broward Human Trafficking Coalition will hold this live teen drama about dating violence at 11 a.m. at the African America Research Library, 2650 Sistrunk Blvd., Fort Lauderdale. Visit bhtc.us.

 

January 26-27

Nigh on the Streets

Ark of Freedom Alliance will hold a sleep-out for homeless youth from 7 p.m. – 7 a.m. at the MASS District of downtown Fort Lauderdale’s Flagler Village, 844 NE 4th Ave. Visit aofalliance.org.

 

January 28

Human Trafficking – Taking off the Mask of Myths

Rescue Upstream in collaboration with the Palm Beach State College Human Trafficking Coalition event at Palm Beach State College, Lake Worth Campus Student Commons (behind the district offices), 4200 Congress Ave, Lake Worth. Contact [email protected].

 

February 9

Race for Freedom

The Palm Beach County Human Trafficking Task Force is sponsoring a Race for Freedom on Saturday, February 9th at 8 a.m. Okeeheelee Park in West Palm Beach to benefit Catholic Charities’ Anti-Human Trafficking Program. Register at pbcpba.org/ht-5k/.

 

Photo Caption

Back Row from left to right: Laura Cusack, Human Trafficking Prevention and Education Coordinator, Place of Hope; Jumorrow Johnson, President, Broward Human Trafficking Coalition and Programs Manager, Children’s Services Council of Broward County; Kristine Bradley, Assistant State Attorney, 17th Judicial Circuit of Florida; Char Talmadge, Director, Rescue Upstream; Tabitha Bush, Reach Program Coordinator, PACE Center for Girls; Middle Row: Christina Silvestri, Anti-Human Trafficking Program Administration, Catholic Charities Diocese of Palm Beach; Ana Ferrer, Crisis & Counseling Administrator, Nancy J Cotterman Center; Holly Carotenuto, Sexual Assault Advocate, Crisis Unit, Nancy J. Cotterman Center; Front Row: Becky Dymond, Founder and Executive Director, Hepzibah House; Lisa Manns, Founder, Katallege House; Sarah Gillespie Cummings, Treatment Manager, Broward County Juvenile Assessment Team; Sandrine Gaillard-Kenny, Associate Dean and CREATE Director, Nova Southeastern University; and Brianna Black Kent, Assistant Dean and CREATE Director, Nova Southeastern University.

Photo by Justus Martin. www.justusmartinphoto.com

 

 

 

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