Florida has smartly adopted a balanced approach to fighting human trafficking. Gov. Rick Scott signed two bills into law that provide more resources for victims and increase penalties for crimes against children. As the issue of human trafficking becomes more visible in the state and worldwide, this is the best course of action to reduce cases of these egregious crimes.
The new laws expand on the Safe Harbor Act passed earlier this year that redefines children involved with trafficking as victims rather than criminals. One empowers the state to rehabilitate victims by delivering an additional $1.5 million to safe houses. It also calls for better assessment of the children and special training for employees. Under this law, caretakers will be able to better address the needs of victims, many of whom enter safe houses in need of intensive drug and physical treatment and mental health counseling.
The second new law increases penalties for those who exploit children and profit from prostitution, prohibits minors from working in adult theaters and allows victims to expunge certain offenses.
The alarming prevalence of trafficking in Florida — from child labor to sexual exploitation — calls for emergency action. South Florida is the third-busiest area for sex trafficking in the United States, according to the U.S. Justice Department. And the state ranks third in the country for calls to a national trafficking hotline.
Since 2009, the Tampa FBI field office has rescued nearly 200 juveniles in a jurisdiction that covers 18 counties. In Pinellas County, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri formed a special victims unit this year to crack down on human trafficking and sex exploitation cases. Most recently, six children from the Tampa Bay area were rescued in the last week as part of an annual nationwide crackdown on child trafficking. In the eight years the operation has been running, nearly 3,600 children have been rescued, the FBI said.
Human trafficking is a highly complex issue, and law enforcement officials are moving forward to find the most effective ways to address it. Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, who helped push the reforms through the Legislature and has made human trafficking a priority, said educating the public about the signs of trafficking is one of the most effective preventive steps. Her office has been working with groups such as truck drivers and emergency room physicians to learn how to identify victims and seek help. "It's a different type of service that we're going to be rendering," Bondi said told the Times editorial board. "These children have lived in the shadows for so many years."
Above all, state officials should continue to educate the public about this issue and to spend money on services proven to help young victims so that those rescued from their captors have a shot at reclaiming their lives and escaping from a world few Florida families can comprehend.