The room of more than a hundred fell silent as the woman on the tape recording sobbed.
"I thought I was going to die, I swear," she cried.
Her strained voice filled the room at the Department of Children and Families Community Alliance Meeting as she described how a pimp held her head under water over and over again because she didn't bring home enough money. The woman is one of hundreds of possible victims, many believed to be children, of human trafficking in Tampa Bay.
Whether it's the emotion, the loss of innocence or the criminal nature of these heinous acts, human trafficking has arisen as a prominent issue in the minds of many in Hillsborough County and Tampa Bay.
On Wednesday, Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandra Murman proposed an ordinance to establish guidelines limiting business hours of massage parlors and preventing workers from living there. The board voted unanimously to have its staff draw up a measure, which came about after police raided a massage parlor on Henderson Avenue for prostitution believed to be linked to human trafficking.
The subject of human trafficking in Tampa Bay isn't new. Many acknowledge the problem has lived here and in cities throughout the United States for decades. But only recently has awareness risen enough to permeate multiple layers of the community, including law enforcement, prosecutors, community advocates and the political sphere.
Quantifying domestic human trafficking has proven challenging. A limited number of cases come before law enforcement and even fewer reach the level of prosecution. Still, the Clearwater/Tampa Bay Area Task Force on Human Trafficking gathered data as of August for 131 arrests with 47 convictions in Tampa Bay. Nearly 200 potential victims were reported, with 45 confirmed as victims of severe human trafficking.
Growing like 'wildfire'
Community leaders point to the increase in documentaries, legislation and training regarding human trafficking as the reasons for growing awareness. Just last year, Gov. Rick Scott signed the Safe Harbor Act into law, allowing children who are rescued from prostitution to get help from child welfare professionals instead of being placed in juvenile delinquency.
For years, area organizations have made domestic human trafficking a priority. But many call the Nov. 16, Fall Forum organized by the Hillsborough Commision on the Status of Women the catalyst pushing the subject to the front of the community's radar.
"There were women in that audience that are strong, community-minded and active women," said Friends of Joshua House executive director DeDe Grundel. "Were there smaller groups that were already formed and trying to do things? Yes. But the commission had the right audience to represent the message to, and from there it just turned into wildfire."
The movement gained further traction when more than 350 people gathered at the Stetson University College of Law's Tampa Law Center in February for a human trafficking symposium sponsored by the Junior League of Tampa. Because the Junior League doesn't have a political or financial stake in the game, it allows them to work as the mutual convener, president Stephanie Wiendl said.
Human trafficking presentations and seminars are lined up through the summer, including a three-day seminar for human trafficking investigators in Clearwater and a conference at the University of South Florida expected to draw as many as 500 attendees.
"I think the rise in awareness is a combination of the task force doing its job really well and people starting to understand that, yes, this is in our community," said Dot Groover-Skipper, vice chairwman to the Commission on the Status of Women. "And if this is really going on, we need to stand up and take action."
Defining the problem
Even though awareness has increased, identifying human trafficking remains complicated. Visions of drugged women smuggled into the country in boxes permeate culture.
"People don't even know what human trafficking is," Wiendl said. "They think if Tampa is number three in human trafficking, they think that's people shipped into the port of Tampa in containers. There's not a lot of education about what the actual issue is."
It's those more insidious cases — young girls wooed by men promising them travel, love and an escape from the struggles of their current lives — that can be harder to recognize.
"I read stories in the paper now and these cases are presented as prostitution, but when you read what happened you say, 'This is completely human trafficking,'" Wiendl said. "You have to explain the whole domestic prostitution type of human trafficking. Because people don't define it that way unless you help them define it that way."
After hearing a presentation from the Commission on the Status of Women in early April, the Hillsborough County Commission agreed to coordinate a public awareness campaign and look into providing safe housing for victims at the county's Lake Magdalene campus for children in crisis.
"They seemed extremely interested and extremely concerned at the same time and really wanting to help resolve this horror in the community," Groover-Skipper said.
Murman said there are victims of human trafficking in the program at Lake Magdalene, but the county is evaluating how much space it will have available.
"We have to keep the pressure on," Murman said. "We don't want anybody's child to be a victim of one of these predators."
In Tallahassee, Rep. Ross Spano, R-Dover, tackled human trafficking in one of the first bills he sponsored as a freshman legislator. Spano became aware of the issue from a friend in law school. Through studying human trafficking, he saw how many victims were prevented from moving on with their lives because of criminal convictions obtained during their time as a trafficking victim. His legislation would allow judges to vacate certain criminal convictions if the offender can prove that they committed them under duress.
Spano's bill is one of several bills addressing human trafficking this session, including restrictions on massage parlors and protections in court for minor victims.
"This is a nonpartisan issue," Spano said. "It's easier to gain momentum from a legislative standpoint when there's almost no resistance. You've got to be an idiot to not understand and acknowledge that we have to do something to address this."
Different panels and seminars the last six months have allowed nonprofits, law enforcement, judges and volunteers to conference on the issue, but many are still determining how to work together.
"Everybody's still a little discombobulated," Wiendl said. "We are continuing trying to bring the right people to the table so everyone knows what everyone else is doing and we can have a true collaboration."
Spano sees the same complication in the legislature: There's no shortage of passion, but the problem is being addressed bit by bit instead of with a unified approach.
"I'd love this summer to see the interested legislators come together for two or three summits and decide what do we have to do to form a global perspective omnibus bill that addresses every single critical issue," Spano said. "We've seen movement along the way, but I think we can do better working together."
Caitlin Johnston can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 225-3111.