TAMPA — The vast majority of children who are sold or forced into the sex trade are girls.
But not all.
Boys made up 7 percent of child victims in Florida, according to a recent state study. But some care workers estimate that number could be has high as 10 to 15 percent.
But until this month, Florida had not even one safe bed for boys rescued from trafficking.
A new safe home in west-central Florida, which formally opened Tuesday, will be one of only a handful in the nation that cater to boys. It's run by the U.S. Institute Against Human Trafficking, a nonprofit group based in Tampa. The home has already admitted its first boy.
"It's a big day for the boys, young kids who have been trafficked who previously have not had anywhere they could go suitable for their needs," said Geoff Rogers, the group's CEO. "There is an absolute dire need for housing for these kids and their care across the country."
The location of the home is being kept secret to protect victims from their traffickers. So for its formal ribbon-cutting ceremony Tuesday, the institute transported a bedroom set from the home to the Yankees Pavilion at George Steinbrenner Field. Among those present were U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis. R-Palm Harbor, Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco and University of South Florida president Judy Genshaft.
On the bed sat a basketball, a backpack and a cushion with the words "The best is yet to come," intended as a message of hope.
Bilirakis said Florida has the third highest number of trafficking victims in the United States, behind California and Texas. He asked those at the ceremony to lobby for a congressional bill due to be debated in September that will make $2 billion available for investigative programs targeting human trafficking.
"We have to help them out of this vicious life of exploitation," he said.
The home, which has just five beds, will make only a small dent in the state's shortage of shelter for exploited children.
A reported 356 children were the victims of commercial sexual exploitation in Florida last year but the state had only 28 safe beds, according to a report by the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability.
That's despite the state making $8.1 million available between 2014 and 2016 for nonprofit groups to expand services.
That included $250,000 that the Florida Department of Children and Families gave to the trafficking institute toward the home for boys. The home cost about $600,000 to build, including the purchase of land.
The home gives each boy his own bedroom and bathroom. The privacy is needed in part because more than half of Florida's trafficked boys do not identify as male, Rogers said.
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Children who stay at the home receive educational and health assessments but the main focus is to treat the trauma they have endured. To protect them from traffickers, they are banned from having cellphones and Internet access.
A typical stay would be up to seven months. The aim is to find them a permanent home in that time.
"At seven months, if they can't move into a new environment with new friends they get stir crazy and can run," Rogers said.
Rogers founded the nonprofit group along with Kevin Malone, a former general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers. The group plans to open a second home, for girls, in the next few months.
"We as adults are supposed to be protectors not predators," said Malone, who is the group's board president. "This is a fight against evil."
Contact Christopher O'Donnell at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.