By Geoffrey Rogers
Earlier this month, seven people were arrested in St. Petersburg for keeping a teenage boy in a trailer and using him as a sex slave. Last month, a South Florida man was convicted of sex trafficking girls for more than a decade.
These cases are horrific and, unfortunately, all too common. The Florida Department of Children and Families collected more than 2,100 reports of human trafficking in the last fiscal year. And Florida consistently ranks in the top three states for the number of calls made to the National Human Trafficking Hotline.
But multiple Florida communities are stepping up to end sex trafficking. And their efforts are leading the way for states across America.
A recent survey by the Saint Leo University Polling Institute found that four out of five Americans know that human trafficking exists in the U.S., but fewer than half know there is a National Human Trafficking Hotline. In part due to recent efforts by Florida communities, Floridians ranked higher than the national average on awareness of human trafficking.
In 2017, Pasco County partnered with the U.S. Institute Against Human Trafficking to become the first "TraffickingFree Zone" in the country. Since then, Pinellas County and the cities of St. Petersburg, Clearwater, New Port Richey and Dade City, as well as all of Florida's Senate District 18 and Congressional District 1, have followed suit.
The TraffickingFree Zone program is a county-wide initiative focused on reducing the demand — the number of buyers — for sex-trafficked victims. The program is implemented in collaboration with local government, law enforcement, businesses, schools, healthcare organizations, churches and the media.
The Pasco Sheriff's Office, under the direction of Sheriff Chris Nocco and Corp. Alan Wilkett, commander of the Pasco County Human Trafficking Task Force, has been a leader in the fight against human trafficking. As part of this initiative, they began implementing an Intercept Bots program, in which bots pose as someone selling sex online and then collect the buyer's name and other information to send to law enforcement. A separate program scrapes phone numbers of potential victims from sites selling sex and sends them messages offering help.
Here are ways you can support Florida's fight against human trafficking:
Declare your business, church or organization a TraffickingFree Zone. This means helping to spread awareness and creating a zero-tolerance policy for employees and community members who engage in sex buying.
Support a safe home. The Institute Against Trafficking's Florida Safe Home is one of the first safe homes for boys who are victims of sex trafficking. This safe home and others across Florida need financial support to provide optimal care.
Learn about and support sex addiction resources in your community. Only 35 percent of Floridians are aware that there are sex addiction resources in their communities. The Institute maintains a list of treatment centers in counties across the state.
The only way to end trafficking in Florida is to do it county-by-county – one government agency, business, church and school at a time.
Geoffrey Rogers is the CEO and co-founder of the U.S. Institute Against Human Trafficking, a nonprofit, faith-based organization committed to ending human trafficking in America. Geoff also is a former vice president at IBM.