TAMPA — People thought South Africa native Natasha Nascimento was crazy when she said in 2010 that she wanted to open a home for human trafficking victims in the Tampa Bay area.
"They thought I was a foreign girl talking about a foreign problem," said Nascimento, whose home, Redefining Refuge, is set to open next month.
People didn't know Florida ranks behind just California and Texas in most human trafficking reported.
They didn't know the average age of a child sex-trafficking victim is 12.
They didn't know 51 child sex-trafficking victims were rescued here in 2010-2011 by the FBI.
But they are starting to learn.
Wednesday morning, more than 350 people gathered at Stetson University College of Law's Tampa Law Center to listen as panels of judges, prosecutors, law enforcement and service providers discussed human trafficking in Tampa Bay.
"Although many people may have heard the term human trafficking, they may not have fully comprehended how pervasive it is, and what significant needs there are, how difficult it is to combat human trafficking and how massive it is," said Pasco Circuit Judge Lynn Tepper, a panelist. "People get the international part, but whenever you talk about domestic, they glaze over. I don't know why that is."
Because many people are unaware of the prevalence of human trafficking in the United States and Tampa Bay, it can be difficult to prosecute cases, Hillsborough Circuit Judge Rex Martin Barbas said.
"I think jurors just don't believe a lot of these people," he said. "I think society has a hard time understanding this type of slavery, I really do. I think that's one of the reasons we have such a difficult time with prosecutions.
All involved advocated the same message: Be aware, know what the indicators are and tell others.
"This is happening right in our back yard," said Stephanie Wiendl, president of the Junior League of Tampa, host of the event. "People need to learn the indicators and know what to look for."
Those indicators include bruises and depression, being accompanied by a controlling person, not being able to speak on his or her own behalf and being unable to contact family members or attend religious services and other social events.
Wednesday's program also touched on specific bills before the Florida Legislature, including restrictions on massage parlors and protections in court for minor victims.
Laura Hamilton, founder and president of Bridging Freedom, a nonprofit organization which hopes to build a therapeutic safe home for victims, said it is important to have safe, secure facilities to house victims who have been rescued.
Many organizations, such as Bridging Freedom and Redefining Refuge, hope to provide that. Until then, existing places such as Joshua House have taken on the challenge of caring for these kids until other homes are created.
"People want to do something, they just don't know what to do," Hamilton said. "People can fundraise, they can spread awareness, they can donate. We just need boots on the ground."
Caitlin Johnston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 661-2443.