Saturday, February 24, 2018
Public safety

Group seeks $2 million for shelter to serve Tampa Bay area human trafficking victims

TALLAHASSEE — When a pimp gets arrested and a young girl, sometimes 14 years old, is rescued from a life of servicing 15 men six nights a week, where does she go?

Laura Hamilton says Florida doesn't yet have an answer.

At best, recent victims of human trafficking, or sex slavery, are checked into rooms at short-term shelters like the Salvation Army, which they quickly leave.

For the past year and a half, she says, she has been working on a program called Bridging Freedom to rehabilitate victims. The plan, backed by the Clearwater/Tampa Bay Area Task Force Against Human Trafficking, is to build a campus in a secluded area of Pinellas County that would be staffed by therapists and deputies, where victims can stay for long-term help. It would be the first of its kind in the state, she says. Hamilton estimates building the campus will cost $2 million.

Hamilton and Cpl. Alan Wilkett of the Pasco Sheriff's Office went to Tallahassee on Tuesday to propose the plan to a group, including Amanda Prater, chief of staff for the Department of Children and Families; Wansley Walters, secretary of Florida's Department of Juvenile Justice; and legislators. During the presentation, state Rep. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, had a question.

"Why would a young girl that has been through this horrible situation …" he asked, "why would they go back into that environment?"

"They have Stockholm syndrome," Hamilton said. "They will run back to the trafficker."

The Tampa Bay area is the second most popular place in Florida for human trafficking behind Miami, according to bridging freedom.com. Between 2010 and 2011, 51 children were rescued from sex trafficking in the area, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. In 2012, the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, an advocacy group, received 55 calls related to the issue from Tampa and 135 from Miami.

Some of them are runaways, said Wilkett, who is also a member of the task force. Others are brought from countries in Central America or Asia. He said having national sports teams, large hotel chains and a hefty tourism base make the Tampa Bay area "fertile ground" for human trafficking.

He has dealt with the victims, usually young girls, who are rescued. Some from other countries have no papers, "just the clothes on their backs," he said. "Mentally, they're very broken down."

After the meeting, Fasano said, he offered whatever help he can give. With this year's legislative budget hearings over, he said, Bridging Freedom will go as a proposal for the 2014-2015 budget.

This summer, he said, he'll help Hamilton draft a plan and a budget to present next spring when they will ask for funding from the county, state and federal levels. After the $2 million is used to build the campus, Hamilton said, there are recurring fees such as salaries for the 40 or so staff members.

Fasano said it's "absolutely feasible" that the proposal would be approved in a budget hearing.

"I don't believe we've put an emphasis on, 'What do we do with the victims?' " he said. "There's no place to put that victim."

Alex Orlando can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6247.

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