It’s a huge problem. South Florida is the third-busiest region in the nation for it, the U.S. Justice Department says. The authorities have a long way to go before they stem the flow.
Yet the news isn’t entirely bad. A problem that had been underground for years is finally emerging into the open. In fact, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, when asked about the startling rise in reported cases, reacted by saying, “That’s great!”
“When I started talking about this as ‘modern day slavery,’ no wanted to hear it,” Bondi, who has made human trafficking a signature issue, told the Palm Beach Post Editorial Board.
Dave Kerner, a Palm Beach County commissioner who has been both a state legislator and law enforcement officer, agrees that in past years human trafficking went severely under-reported.
“When someone steals your purse, that’s an easy crime to count,” Kerner said. But human trafficking, a catch-all phrase for forced prostitution and forced labor, is deeply unsettling. It’s a problem that skulks in the shadows. When a glimpse appears, you want to avert your eyes.
So it seems the 2015 Florida law which mandates the display of human trafficking-awareness signs has been doing its job. The signs in English and Spanish explain the problem and how to phone or text for help. They’re required in such places as airports, rail stations, hospital emergency rooms, schools, welcome centers, adult entertainment establishments and massage parlors.
But with South Florida identified as the nation’s third-busiest region for human trafficking, we want to see much more done.
Luckily, the added sunshine is producing a flowering of ideas. Politicians from both parties and at all levels of government are advancing proposals: More shelters to help juveniles rescued from prostitution or forced labor to build better lives. More education for teachers, emergency room workers and police officers on how to spot victims.
Prosecutors in Florida are stepping up (the AG’s Office alone currently has cases on 90 defendants), but as Kerner says, the federal government is best suited to handle the complexity of trafficking rings, which frequently cross state lines and national borders. We could use new federal laws – or at least strong pledges from multinational corporations — to ensure that supply chains for farm and factory products are free of forced labor.
County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay says she has been working with code enforcement officials to educate club owners on the awareness-sign requirements, training first responders to recognize potential victims and reviewing adult entertainment ordinances “to see if there are ways we can develop opportunities for education and awareness.”
“This dark underworld needs to be brought into the light,” McKinlay told the Editorial Board in an email.
But will budget-minded governments supply the money and manpower needed to make good on these intentions? Will the Trump administration’s immigration crackdown discourage vulnerable victims or tipsters from approaching authorities?
We’re encouraged to see the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office and Catholic Charities for the Diocese of Palm Beach lead a partnership to investigate local reports of human trafficking and help victims. They’re sharing a $1.5 million grant from the U.S. Justice Department for a three-year project— just the start, we hope, of a longer commitment.
The first step in solving any problem is recognizing the problem. As a society and a state, we are doing that. Now must come the follow-through. When victims are identified, give them help. When perpetrators are caught, throw the book at them.
It seems the 2015 Florida law which mandates the display of human trafficking-awareness signs has been doing its job.