TALLAHASSEE — Targeting what one senator described as a "sick but profitable criminal enterprise,'' lawmakers have started moving to ramp up Florida's response to human trafficking.
One proposal (HB 465/SB 1108) would increase penalties for "soliciting, inducing, enticing or procuring another to commit prostitution." Another (HB 457/SB 698) would dedicate funding from a "Safe and Free Florida" specialty license tag to victim services.
A third proposal (SB 534/HB 369) would require the National Human Trafficking Resource Center Hotline number to be posted "in all Florida transportation hubs."
"Human trafficking is a sick but profitable criminal enterprise that affects up to 300,000 children and many young adults in the United States each year," Sen. Jack Latvala, a Clearwater Republican and sponsor of SB 534, said in a prepared statement last week. "SB 534 will get more of these cases reported and hopefully help put an end to this widespread practice of modern-day slavery."
Florida ranks among the top three states for human trafficking. And as more about the crime has become known, the state has toughened its laws. Last year Florida earned a B in a study of state trafficking laws by the American Center for Law & Justice and Shared Hope International, an advocacy group.
Virtually everyone involved in the state's response agrees that community awareness has grown exponentially over the past few years.
"It's becoming a hot topic," said Zachary Hughes, a detective with the Marion County Sheriff's Office. "The community wants to be involved."
But Hughes also warned that the state network of victim services is far from adequate.
"The response is very, very regionalized," he said.
On Monday, when the Statewide Council on Human Trafficking met at the Capitol, the panel heard a report that recommended a more coordinated system of care.
"Currently Florida's system is somewhat fragmented," Department of Juvenile Justice Secretary Christy Daly said.
According to the report, conducted by the Department of Juvenile Justice and the Department of Children and Families, there are about 180 known survivors of sexually exploitation in the foster-care system. During federal fiscal year 2013-2014, 31 were referred for specialized services, but no safe houses or safe foster homes were available.
The report also recommended specialized victim advocates and a much wider array of services for trafficking survivors — including treatment for substance abuse, mental health and medical needs.
"It is important to know that the council was not charged to look at funding," Daly said. "But one of our biggest challenges is funding. Often these programs are very expensive."
Miami-Dade County State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle asked the council to consider backing a proposal to extend eligibility for services to victims who are 18 and older.
"What we're finding in our community is that for the young girls, under the age of 18, we have a very good safety net. DCF's doing a great job," she said. "But what happens if that same girl turns 18 years old? We cannot find a place to help her get out of the brutal environment she's been in."
Both Rundle and Hughes of the Marion County Sheriff's Office emphasized that sex-trafficking victims tend to enter the life at 13 or 14, often due to abuse or poverty at home. Both said that victims become "trauma-bonded" to their abusers — and are often badly beaten and addicted.
"We've got to break that bond," Hughes said. "Abuse becomes normal. They don't know what a healthy relationship is."
But to provide that healing response, experts agree, more services are needed.
"We know there's not enough shelter and housing," said Robin Hassler Thompson, a Tallahassee lawyer affiliated with the Center for the Advancement of Human Rights at Florida State University. "The challenge about human trafficking is that it is vast. We've got a whole range of needs and a whole range of victims."
Hassler Thompson recently helped establish a nonprofit called the Survive and Thrive Advocacy Center for trafficking victims within the 2nd Judicial Circuit in North Florida.