Preventing Human Trafficking in Brevard, Beyond
January is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month and across the country, anti-trafficking organizations will shine a spotlight on the rising crime — and how pervasive it actually is.
According to the International Labour Organization, 24.9 million people are victims of forced labor worldwide, and those numbers include 16 million in forced labor and 4.8 million in forced sexual exploitation. This is just an estimated number and many experts warn that these are likely lower than actual numbers.
Human trafficking is defined by the U.S. Department of Defense as “a crime in which force, fraud or coercion is used to compel a person to perform labor, services or commercial sex. It affects all populations: adults, children, men, women, foreign nationals and U.S. citizens, and all economic classes.”
Lindsey Phillips is the Director of External Affairs at nonprofit Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health, with a campus in Viera. She says that Florida is third in the nation for prevalence of calls to the national human trafficking hotline and that the state has individual factors contributing to that number, including transient populations and tourism.
“We have many transient communities throughout Florida. A lot of people who live in Florida were born in other communities so there aren’t as many deep roots where people know their neighbors well, their family dynamics, where they work or more,” Phillips said. “Additionally, when you factor in high rates of tourism, rapid growth, even the homeless population, it makes it an easier place to traffick youth undetected.”
Phil Scarpelli is the CEO of Brevard Family Partnership and he says that though his focus is on local children, the universality of human trafficking is important to recognize.
“America falls victim to ‘it’s not my kid that it’s going to happen to’ and that’s simply not true,” Scarpelli said.
A Misunderstood Crime
The common understanding of human trafficking, both for labor and sexual exploitation, often centers on the concept of “stranger danger” and people being literally stolen from homes or public places. Viral social media posts that mention creepy strangers in stores or children alleged being shipped in pieces of furniture are not only far-fetched — they are harmful to human trafficking awareness, experts say.
“Traffickers know where to find victims and often it is right under the noses of parents, as their children are on social media,” Scarpelli said.
From children warming to the attention of a seemingly safe stranger, to teens being electronically sent $20 through a cash mobile app for simply sending a photo, the internet is a ripe place for predators, he says.
“I think people do not realize how close vulnerable youth may be to the situation, that there are often identifiable risk factors that may be acted upon before a child or teen reaches the point of being victimized into a trafficking situation.. It is not typically people snatching kids from their front yards; there are often signs of grooming that goes into it,” Phillips adds.
Skilled predators often start with compliments that morph into inappropriate questions that can eventually lead to drugs, alcohol or other judgement-impairing avenues.
“At some point, a kid no longer knows how to get out of it, and may even face threats to themselves or their loved ones if they speak up,” Scarpelli said.
The amount of time, energy and even money that traffickers put into recruiting, and entrapping, victims is often the untold story of the crime.
“I hate to say that traffickers have this ‘skill,’ because they don’t deserve that word, but that’s truly what they’ve cultivated and what makes it so scary,” Scarpelli said.
Once children and adults enter the life of trafficking, it is a relentless industry that can feel nearly impossible to break free from — and is increasingly attractive to the people it benefits.
“Criminal behavior has shown that trafficking a young woman or man, for example, may be more profitable than selling drugs and potentially poses less risk,” Phillips said.
The Super Bowl is considered by researchers to be the most-trafficked weekend and single event of the year, with an estimated thousands of victims ushered into the cities where the game is held.
Super Bowl LV will take place in Tampa on Feb. 7 and Florida’s anti-trafficking organizations, including the office of the state attorney general, are trying to raise public awareness of trafficking crimes.
“People don’t do enough advocacy or reporting of things that just don’t look right,” Scarpelli said. “It’s better to report when you see something troubling.”
Florida has two options for reporting potential trafficking crimes: the National Human Trafficking Hotline: (1-888-373-7888) and the Florida DCF Abuse Hotline (1-800-96-ABUSE).
“Call the hotline, even if you are not 100 percent sure that trafficking is taking place. It is not your job to figure it out or prove it,” Phillips said.
For parents concerned about predators infiltrating their own children’s lives, Phillips and Scarpelli give the following suggestions for spotting and reporting potential human trafficking predators:
- Pay attention to children acting sneaky on mobile devices, or simply using them more often. Often adults will pose as a younger person online to gain the trust of a supposed peer.
- Notice if your children have unexplained cash, items you did not purchase or gift cards.
- Keep lines of communication open with your own children. “Even children in higher socioeconomic brackets can fall prey to it and they may fear retaliation from parents for whatever they perceive to be their role in the relationship,” Scarpelli said.
Both Phillips and Scarpelli believe that Florida is a model for other states when it comes to fighting trafficking and protecting victims with programs and believe greater public awareness is the key to successfully stopping the crimes in their tracks.
“Once you are informed and more educated, you start to see more red flags for yourself,” Phillips said.
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