WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Victims of human traffickers could be your neighbor, a classmate in your child's school, or someone working in your favorite restaurant. National statistics show most victims are community members.
"I started being trafficked when I was 11," said Savannah Parvu, via a virtual interview from Orlando.
Parvu spent most of her childhood in and out of Florida hotel rooms, where she says her mother's drug dealer sold her for sex.
"There was one time I was walking through the hotel and was barefoot, bleeding, bruises on me, crying, and people saw me, but nobody ever asked any questions," Parvu said.
No one was there to help pull her out of a cycle she was trapped in.
"I would ask my teachers for detention so that I wouldn't have to go home right after school because sometimes my trafficker was at the bus stop waiting for me," Parvu said. "They would let me stay at school, but they never asked why I didn't want to go home."
Florida's warm sunshine and blue waters attract people from all over the world.
"This is a place where individuals want to come and have a good time and come on vacation," said Laura Cusack, the president of the Human Trafficking Coalition of the Palm Beaches.
But lurking in paradise are dangerous predators.
"There's money in our area. So, there's individuals who are able to indulge and buy in these services," added Cusack.
More than 15 years ago, the high-profile sex-trafficking case of billionaire and part-time Palm Beach resident Jeffrey Epstein unveiled the darkness under South Florida's skies.
"I think it really hit home for a lot of people that may be thought Palm Beach County, we’re protected or we're immune," Cusack said.
Palm Beach County ranks third in the state for human trafficking incidents. Florida ranks third in the nation, according to cases reported to the National Human Trafficking Hotline.
Data shows local reports have dropped since 2020, but Cusack said there's a concern the pandemic may have slowed down reporting.
"The top two reporters are No. 1, the individuals being trafficked. And No. 2, the community members," Cusack said.
January is Human Trafficking Awareness Month. Using red sand, people around the world are raising awareness.
The #RedSandProject invites people to fill sidewalk cracks with red sand and share the transformation on social media. It represents the millions of victims who often fall through the cracks and are exploited.
"I was 26 when I learned what happened to me was human trafficking," Parvu said.
It was at a human trafficking awareness event in 2014 that she realized she was a victim. Since then, she has helped pass legislation that requires hotels to train staff to recognize and report human trafficking.
"It's not easy to share my story, but I remember when I was younger and being trafficked, I wanted to know somebody who had been through something similar to me and was doing well because I didn't think it was possible," she added.
She hopes her story will inspire others to pay attention and report the troubles in paradise.
"Just noticing them, because nobody ever noticed me," Parvu said.
Human trafficking is defined as a crime that involves the use of force, fraud or coercion to lure vulnerable victims into forced labor or commercial sexual exploitation or both.
Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) show arrests nationwide for human trafficking in fiscal year 2021 increased to 2,360 from 1,746 in the previous year. More than 700 victims were identified and helped.
Some of the signs community members can look out for, according to HSI:
- Does the person appear disconnected from family, friends, community organizations, or houses of worship?
- Has a child stopped attending school?
- Has the person had a sudden or dramatic change in behavior?
- Is a juvenile engaged in commercial sex acts?
- Is the person disoriented or confused, or showing signs of mental or physical abuse?
- Does the person have bruises in various stages of healing?
- Is the person fearful, timid, or submissive?
- Does the person show signs of having been denied food, water, sleep, or medical care?
- Is the person often in the company of someone to whom he or she defers? Or someone who seems to be in control of the situation, e.g., where they go or who they talk to?
- Does the person appear to be coached on what to say?
- Is the person living in unsuitable conditions?
- Does the person lack personal possessions and appear not to have a stable living situation?
- Does the person have freedom of movement? Can the person freely leave where they live? Are there unreasonable security measures?
Any suspicions of human trafficking should be reported to the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888.
To help raise awareness, take a photo wearing blue on Jan.11 and post to social media using the #WearBlueDay hashtag.
To participate in the #RedSandProject, pick up red sand at the Victim Services Center in West Palm Beach or at Palm Beach County library branches in Boca Raton, Jupiter, Belle Glade and Okeechobee.
1. Florida became the first state in the country to require youth in K-12 to be educated on human trafficking each year. The Human Traffic Coalition of the Palm Beaches provides presentations to youth and staff to help meet this mandate.
2. Why is blue the color to support human trafficking awareness? Click here to learn more.
4. Attend upcoming free virtual presentations open to community members from the Human Trafficking Coalition of the Palm Beaches.
5. Below are other ways to get involved:
- Share what you learn with others (like us on Facebook/Instagram, repost informative content, etc.)
- Join upcoming coalition meetings to get connected and learn more through the Human Trafficking Coalition of the Palm Beaches.
- Volunteer on a committee
- Schedule a presentation at email@example.com
- Donate to an organization helping with this issue