ST. PETERSBURG — Police Chief Anthony Holloway knew that human trafficking was a problem across the United States.
But what really drove the point home was the plight of two teenage boys, one of them sexually abused for nearly a year by four men who imprisoned him inside a squalid St. Petersburg mobile home.
A year after seven adults were charged in the case, the St. Petersburg Police Department is taking the lead in a new six-county regional task force to take on human trafficking. Funded through a $742,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice, The Tampa Bay Human Trafficking Task Force will work to catch traffickers and help victims.
“Human trafficking exists; it’s real and it’s ugly,” Holloway said at a Wednesday event to announce the grant. “We can no longer pretend otherwise.”
The task force will be able to call on an impressive array of resources.
At least 15 local law enforcement agencies from Hernando to Sarasota and as far east as Polk County will share information on cases and, when needed, provide additional resources.
At the federal level, the task force will be assisted by the FBI, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Florida. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement and state attorney’s offices from four judicial circuits are also on board.
The three-year grant comes from the Office of Justice Programs, which in the fiscal year that ended Oct. 1 awarded $23. 1 million to anti-trafficking task forces across the nation, said U.S. Attorney Maria Chapa Lopez.
“It’s not just about identifying the perpetrators of these crimes, the traffickers, the organizers, but it's also to identify the victims,” Chapa Lopez said.
Selah Freedom, a national non-profit group with offices in Sarasota, was chosen to work with trafficking victims. The group has eight short-term beds in the Tampa Bay region where victims can be housed and receive therapy and services, said Misti LaPierre, director of outreach. Another 16 beds are available for victims who need longer-term therapy.
People rescued from trafficking typically need food, clothing and housing, typically in a safe house at an undisclosed location where their traffickers cannot find them. Some may also need treatment for addiction, LaPierre said.
The real challenge is longer term, dealing with issues like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“These are people that a lot of times have suffered through traumatic events, sometimes as pre-adolescents, whether it’s sexual abuse, maybe even trafficking at the hands of a parent,” LaPierre said.
Part of the rehabilitation is filling in the gaps in victims’ lives. That could mean reunifying them with their family and helping them obtain a high school diploma or a driver’s license.
Florida, the third most populous state, also ranks third in the United States in human trafficking cases behind only California and Texas — the two most populous states, according to the National Human Trafficking Hotline. The hotline received roughly 770 reports of potential trafficking in Florida in 2018.
But some groups are warning of an uptick in trafficking activities, with Miami and Tampa hosting the next two Superbowls. Such large events tend to attract traffickers hoping to cash in on the influx of visitors, LaPierre said.
St. Petersburg police formed a special unit to target trafficking in 2018. Since then, it has launched 23 investigations — more than double the number conducted over the previous four years.
Investigators will focus on places where traffickers lure victims and advertise for customers, such as social media platforms like WhatsApp, Snapchat and Instagram, Holloway said. He has committed his department to providing funding to extend the task force for an additional year.
“We’re not looking for the ‘johns,” Holloway said, referring to men who pay for sex. “We’re looking for the people who say, ‘Hey, you want a 13-year-old girl?”