TALLAHASSEE -- Two state agency heads Wednesday warned a Senate panel that pimps and third-party labor contractors are targeting young people in the state foster care system.
Department of Children and Families Secretary David Wilkins and Department of Juvenile Justice Secretary Wansley Walters told the Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee that a new law is helping more victims of forced labor and prostitution, but that much work remains to be done.
Wilkins said the Safe Harbor Act, which went into effect Jan. 1, helps child victims of trafficking by providing sanctuary and services instead of treating them as criminals. In the past, he said, victims – especially those from other countries – were placed in the juvenile justice system instead of receiving care for what they had endured.
He also said pimps have been targeting young people in state foster care.
"What has been shocking to me, more than anything," Wilkins said, "is the volume of particularly prostitution, where organized crime is, in essence, actively recruiting our kids to get into this business."
Wilkins said the youngsters were approached based on their vulnerabilities.
"Does it seem to be that the big lure is a supply of drugs?" Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, asked him. "Or is it money? Or something else?"
"I would say the biggest lure is love," Wilkins replied. "These guys basically say, 'I'm here for you. I'm going to be your protector, I'm going to be your support function.' And sure, they shower 'em with gifts and drugs and parties and limousines…and then the next thing you know, they ask 'em to take the next step, and then they're caught."
"It's not love," said Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood and the committee chair. "It's really slavery at the end of the day."
DJJ's Walters agreed that victims are approached based on vulnerability. She said Barbara Palmer, director of the Agency for Persons with Disabilities, had asked her to tell the panel that children with disabilities "are six times more likely to be trafficked than a person who does not have disabilities."
"These people are preying on the most vulnerable children that we have in the state of Florida," Walters said.
Since 2010, DCF has investigated 1,266 cases of alleged human trafficking involving children; of those, 717 were already in the DJJ system.
In 2011, about 200 trafficked minors received services through DCF and its community partners. Currently DCF is caring for about 100 child trafficking victims and has established three safe houses, with more to come.
Robin Hassler Thompson, a senior policy analyst at Florida State University's Center for the Advancement of Human Rights, said the state can respond without a new burst of spending, by adding human trafficking to other professional training, such as domestic violence training for physicians.
"There are ways within existing agency budgets, within training budgets, within collaborations with the private sector, to develop the training and awareness tools that are important to getting the word out about this issue," she said.
For instance, said Hassler Thompson, Texas includes a national hotline number on signs required in bars and restaurants by state alcohol regulators.
"And guess who gets the most calls to the national hotline on trafficking? They all come from Texas, because the awareness is right there," she said.
Hassler Thompson said training enables ordinary people to pick up on signs they might otherwise have missed, such as a child forced to shower outside who turns out to be a house slave.
"What service providers and law enforcement have told us time and time again is, it's the Good Samaritan who 'sees something funny' " who reports possible trafficking, she said.
Hassler Thompson said that by including the national hotline number for human trafficking – 888-373-7888 – on other materials, the state can offer help to more victims at highway rest stops and in bars and restaurants.
"We haven't seen the number anywhere in Florida," said Sobel.
"There you go," Hassler Thompson replied.