TAMPA — Pledging "zero tolerance" for human trafficking, Gov. Rick Scott said Monday he'll sign two bills to help deal with it — one establishing a network of safe houses for victims and the other increasing penalties for perpetrators against children.
While visiting a downtown Tampa ministry of the Hyde Park United Methodist Church, Scott was surrounded by artwork decrying sex trafficking and a ring of community advocates and politicians devoted to ending it.
"I think about my two daughters," Scott said. "You just can't imagine this happening to anybody."
One bill devotes an additional $1.5 million toward safe houses where victims can be relocated and rehabilitated, Scott said. Among other things, the bill (HB 7141) calls for better assessment of child victims and special training for employees dealing with exploited children.
The other bill (HB 989) increases penalties for those who exploit children and derive income from prostitution, prohibits minors from working in adult theaters and allows victims to expunge certain offenses committed while being exploited from their records.
In this year's budget, the state allots $3 million toward safe houses and services for victims of human trafficking. Scott said he also approved $6 million more to help about 2,000 children tied up in court proceedings.
Ranging from sexual exploitation of minors to forced labor, human trafficking has become a prominent issue in the past few years. Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, who stood by Scott during Monday's event, described sex trafficking as "alive and thriving."
She said Florida ranks third in the country for the number of calls to a national trafficking hotline. She urged parents to have a conversation with their children about dangers posed by the Internet, where traffickers can lurk in disguise.
Midway through the news conference, Scott introduced Connie Rose of Selah Freedom, a nonprofit organization based in Sarasota that's dedicated to raising awareness of human trafficking and exploitation.
Rose, who is the organization's director of survivor leadership, is a survivor herself. Looking out a window of the building, she told of how "right here, on these streets, I was trafficked by my father," a service driver for an automotive store.
When she was 15, he began "setting" her up. During large gatherings, she said, she was passed between men and deemed "the party favor." Other nights, she stepped onto the front lawn and was picked up, returning home around 5 a.m.