4:59 p.m Monday, Feb. 20, 2017 Palm Beach County Crime
The recent case of three men accused of kidnapping a 19-year-old woman in Boynton Beach and trying to force her into prostitution is among a rapidly growing number of reported human trafficking incidents in Florida, state officials say.
The Florida Department of Children and Families counted nearly 1,900 reports of human trafficking statewide in 2016, a 54 percent increase from the previous year.
Advocates for victims have called human trafficking modern-day slavery. Under state and federal law, it is defined as soliciting, recruiting, harboring, transporting or otherwise obtaining another person to exploit him or her for labor, domestic servitude or sexual exploitation.
“Human trafficking is something that can go on right before your eyes and you might not recognize it,” said Sheila Gomez, the executive director of the Catholic Charities Diocese of Palm Beach, one of Palm Beach County’s largest family service nonprofits.
According to the Polaris Project – a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C. that tracks the number of calls to the national trafficking hotline – Florida had the third-highest number of reported cases in 2016, behind only California and Texas.
South Florida’s popularity among tourists and its transient populations help make it a popular target for the crime, some authorities say.
“Any place where there are young adults,” said Becky Dymond, the founder of Hepzibah House, a safe house in Palm Beach County for women who have been victims of trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation. “Traffickers, they’ll go to bus stops, halfway houses, sober houses, strip clubs, bars.”
Today, Catholic Charities is expected to announce the receipt of a grant and the start of a partnership with the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office to combat human trafficking.
The Boynton Beach incident took place in the early morning hours of Feb. 9. The men entered a home on Northwest Fourth Street, two of them with guns drawn. One pointed a revolver at the 19-year-old’s stomach, grabbed her by the back of her head and forced her to leave the house, police say.
An ad for the woman later appeared on the Backpage.com website advertising sexual relationships. An undercover detective arranged to meet her at a Boynton Beach motel, offering to pay $200, before the men were arrested. One of the men allegedly told officers they had gone to the Boynton Beach home to “pimp” the woman out.
Officials say violent acts such as this one are less common than scenarios where persuasion and kindness are used by a would-be trafficker to gain their target’s trust.
“Perhaps that person, they are really down on their luck or it could be a number of vulnerabilities,” said Tanya Meade, president of the Human Trafficking Coalition of the Palm Beaches. “At the end of the day, somebody uses else’s vulnerability to make a profit.”
POINT OF VIEW: The human cost of trafficking
Dymond estimates about 2,100 women in Palm Beach County are being commercially sexually exploited, not including those who are trafficked online. Women and men in drug recovery are particularly vulnerable to being manipulated by traffickers, she said.
“All they have to do is go ‘Hey, you can have as much coke as you want,’ ” Dymond said. “That’s one of the tools they use to manipulate and maintain control.”
Anti-trafficking organizations already are targeting at least one tool the Boynton Beach suspects are alleged to have used. This month, an unnamed Florida woman who says she was the victim of trafficking through Backpage and an anti-human trafficking organization filed a lawsuit in federal court in Orlando against the owners of Backpage.com
“The online exploitation of teen girls is the biggest human rights violation of our time,” said Carol Robles-Roman, the president and CEO of Legal Momentum, a New York-based women’s rights organization that helped prepare the lawsuit. “Backpage.com knowingly facilitated this evil and must be held accountable to the harmed girls and to the organizations that provide them services so they can heal and recover.”
This past month, the site closed its adult advertisement section, citing government pressure, according to multiple published reports.
Statistics show the majority of reported human trafficking cases involve women, but it can also happen to men and boys, officials say.
“There is no such thing as a typical victim,” Meade said. “They can be young people. They can be older. They can be male. It happens really across the socioeconomic (spectrum).”
In many cases, calls to the trafficking hotline are made by a community member who observed something out of the ordinary, she said. According to the Polaris Project, signs of human trafficking include a person being unable to leave as he or she wishes, lacking control over his or her finances, and lacking control over his or her identificiation.
“The biggest thing we always encourage people to do is just educate themselves about the issue,” Meade said. “If they see something that doesn’t look right or feel right, call the hotline.”
SEE ANYTHING SUSPICIOUS?
Call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 888-373-7888.
Read the original story here.