Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi has seen firsthand the difference a well-run safe house can make in the lives of human trafficking victims.
Bondi told the audience gathered Thursday at a human trafficking forum of a recent trip she took to Mexico City, where she and other attorneys general discussed prominent issues with Mexican officials and visited a treatment facility for victims.
"One thing they are ahead of us on is safe houses," Bondi said.
The forum, hosted by the attorney general and acting U.S. Attorney A. Lee Bentley III, focused on issues such as investigations, prosecutions, forensic interviews and the need for victim services. One reoccurring topic was the need for more safe houses - secure locations run by service providers that give lodging and physical and mental care for victims.
Human trafficking - ranging from the sexual exploitation of minors to forced labor - has risen to the forefront as a prominent issue across the state in the past couple years. The Legislature is reviewing several bills this session on human trafficking, including one that sparked controversy by suggesting involuntary confinement of girls who are most at risk of flight.
Bondi told the audience she had met with legislators Wednesday night and reworked the language of the bill, eliminating the provision that would keep girls in a safe house against their will.
"Everyone shares the common goal of helping these victims," Bondi said. "We're optimistic that, working with the House and Senate, we will come to a great resolution regarding human trafficking legislation."
The bill also seeks to create a Statewide Council on Human Trafficking. The council, overseen by Bondi, would coordinate efforts among service providers and law enforcement to support victims and fight commercial sexual exploitation as a form of human trafficking.
Even though prosecutions have increased as the issue has become more of a priority nationwide, Bentley said it is still difficult to quantify the extent of the problem. A majority of human trafficking cases go unreported, and Bentley said he suspects the number of prosecutions doesn't come anywhere close to showing the full picture.
"We're prosecuting the tip of the iceberg," Bentley said. "We cannot prosecute our way out of this problem. What we really need is prevention."
Bentley also reinforced the importance of a partnership between prosecutors and service providers. While a victim's testimony and cooperation can be integral to the success of a case, it can be difficult to keep that victim engaged with the process if he or she is not receiving vital emotional and physical support.
"We have had investigations or prosecutions break down because the victim becomes unresponsive or disappears," Bentley said. "This is a real problem we have. It's difficult to provide the women with the services it takes for them to recover."
Caitlin Johnston can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 661-2443.