TAMPA — In 2008, FBI agent Gregory Christopher helped launch a task force aimed at rescuing children from prostitution. In just one year, the group freed 22 children in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.
For that, Christopher was named the State/Federal Law Enforcement Officer of the Year.
As leader of the Tampa Area Crimes Against Children task force, Christopher, 32, works with four detectives to remove minors from the grasp of preying pimps.
The St. Petersburg Times spoke with him recently about his job, the problems child prostitutes face and what the community can do to help.
What exactly does the task force do?
It's an FBI-led task force, comprised of Tampa police and the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office. It started informally about two years ago, and we rescued 22 kids. In 2010, we're pretty much on par. (They've found 21 children so far.) The whole purpose is, one, recovering the kids, and, two, prosecuting the individual who exploited them through sex.
So what happens to the pimps?
We prosecute them in federal or state court — whoever can give the most time. The pimps, they're shocked when they find out they're going to go to jail for this long. They think they were just being a pimp. But these are children. The youngest we've seen is 13.
What kind of time can they get?
It depends on many factors. In federal (court), it's no less than 10 to 15, to life.
What is the typical victim you come across?
A lot of these kids are foster kids, runaway kids. There's not a lot of people looking out for them. I'd say about 70 percent or so are foster kids. We work closely with DCF (the Department of Children and Families).
Twenty-two children rescued in Tampa Bay in just one year — does that seem high to you?
I have no doubt there's a lot more out there. I get at least two or three leads a week. We can't act on everything. There's no way.
So what happens to the girls once you find them?
When girls were arrested in the past, they were booked (into a juvenile justice center), bonded out and went back on the street. You have to treat the girls like a victim — because she is. I've had girls spit in my face. I've had girls cuss me out. I'll tell you why: They haven't had experiences where police are on their side. They're probably going to be beat by their pimp for messing up. It takes a concerted effort to make it clear you want to help them. Pimps completely brainwash a child. It's the most frustrating part about it.
What happens then?
If you receive five girls and one completely changes her life, then you're doing well. The biggest problem is taking her to a place where she can get help — psychological, mental, substance abuse. Now, we're sending them out of state to Children of the Night in California and Gems in New York. If you send the girl to a foster home or a group home, it's not going to help. Part of that task force (the Florida Statewide Task Force on Human Trafficking) is figuring out how to get a place like that here.
How does something like this even occur in the first place?
The girls are told the pimp is their boyfriend. They think, "He's going to love me. He's keeping me fed. He's giving me a place to stay." The girls don't get the money. The guys have nice cars, live in decent places, have nice clothes. When you find the girls, they're completely numb.
How do you deal with seeing tragedies like these, day after day?
What makes it worthwhile is just seeing the kids when we have a successful rescue. There's nothing better than seeing the girls get out of the game. Some keep in touch with me. They tell me "I hated you at first," but later they're thankful. That's what makes it tolerable: the success stories, and, I've got to be honest, seeing these guys go to jail for a long time.
What can we, as a community, do to help?
You'll be surprised what you can observe or come across. We have our office staffed around-the-clock. Call (813) 253-1000, and someone will be available. Really, it's just about being observant. You could be driving around on, for example, Nebraska Avenue, and you could see a young girl out there. You know that's not right — she looks too young. Call in and describe the girl, where she is and that she looks young. We will address it.
This interview was edited for clarity and brevity. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3433.