TAMPA — She was molested beginning at the age of 9 and ran away from home at age 15 only to be abducted, chained in an attic, and forced into the sex trade for more than a year.
Now more than 40 years later, Niki Rowe Cross is an award-winning public speaker, author, and founder of a non-profit dedicated to speaking out against human trafficking and aiding girls and boys, men and women caught in the horrific grasp of sexual slavery and forced labor.
"I kept my secret buried for over 20 years," Cross said. "I just wanted to forget the abuse, the drugs, the drinking.
"Then I realized I might have scabs but I was not scarred, that there was and is hope for myself and others like me to live a normal life."
The Human Trafficking Conference at Tampa General Hospital, sponsored by the hospital's Surgical Services Educators, was designed to meet new state continuing education requirements for nurses seeking to renew their licenses in 2019.
Those requirements include learning the types of human trafficking, factors that put people at greater risk of becoming a victim, services and hotlines available to victims, assessment tools to identify victims, and referral options for legal and social services.
"The importance of nurses fulfilling the Human Trafficking education is to be the first line of defense for these victims," said Karley Wright, a registered nurse and education specialist who organized the conference. "Training nurses to recognize the warning signs of a Human Trafficking victim will empower them to be able to quickly identify the victim, gain their trust, and treat them with empathy and without judgement."
The conference drew more than 200 attendees, mostly nurses but also members of the public, business owners, IT professionals, social service providers and teachers.
Human trafficking — sexual slavery, domestic servitude and forced labor — is not just a phenomenon found in other areas of the world, she stressed.
"Girls and women who are trafficked are not 'ho's', they are victims. They are people created to be loved by somebody and not abused," Cross said.
Her funny, softly Southern delivery helped to blunt the raw horror of her own experiences and the stories of girls she helped to rescue through her foundation's work with law enforcement.
Cross's STAAR (Stop The Abuse And Rescue) Ministries also works closely with social service agencies throughout the country to identify and assist young girls caught up in the sex trade.
"Trafficking victims are often hidden in plain sight," Cross said, adding that nurses and other healthcare providers have a "unique opportunity" to identify people who are being abused.
Girls forced into the sex trade in brothels, massage parlors, night clubs, escort agencies are often afflicted with gastrointestinal issues and show signs of post-traumatic stress, Cross said.
As a major tourist destination, Florida has the third highest amount of human trafficking in the U.S., while Tampa is the second largest city in the state where people are trafficked.
Each year in Florida there are some 40,000 teenage runaways, with a third abducted and forced into prostitution within the first two days, according to Cross.
Traffickers control their victims through isolation, psychological and physical abuse, drug or alcohol dependency, or by threats against family or of deportation.
As a result, Cross said, many victims deny their situation and even protect their traffickers because they fear for their own safety. They also fear law enforcement and have many unmet medical needs.
Cross urged nurses to be aware of numerous "red flags of sex trafficking" including: persistent or untreated venereal diseases; high numbers of sex partners; trauma or foreign objects in the vagina or rectum; jaw or neck injuries; repeated abortions or miscarriages and fertility problems; bruising, cuts, scarring or burns; missing or broken teeth; dislocated limbs or fractures; and abnormal bald spots.
The continuing education now arms nurses with contact information for the authorities when they spot these signs.
"(The training) creates a sense of safety for the nurse to feel it is okay to call authorities on instinct," Wright said. "If they are wrong, then authorities and the nurse will both be happy."
Trafficking victims often are unable to present ID's, show signs of addiction, are malnourished, and exhibit high degrees of fear, paranoia and depression, Cross said.
"It's important to ask questions, but don't interrogate," Cross said.
"Let them know you are there to help them."
Contact Sheila Mullane Estrada at firstname.lastname@example.org.