Manatee County roundtable focuses on halting sex trade

skennedy@bradenton.comJanuary 31, 2013 

MANATEE -- Manatee County commissioners' concerns about what they say are a proliferation of sex-related businesses in the county took center stage at a Wednesday roundtable about the exploitation of girls and women.

Commissioners debated whether limiting hours of such places, or using "nuisance abatement" laws, would curb illegal activity.

"Everyday, there's a new one," said Commissioner Robin DiSabatino of such places popping up in her district, with other commissioners agreeing they are seeing the same thing.

DiSabatino joined fellow commissioners Betsy Benac, Carol Whitmore and Michael Gallen at the event, which was sponsored by two nonprofit groups at the Stoneybrook Golf Club at Heritage Harbour.

"A lot of this is going on in my district, along U.S. 41," DiSabatino told the group. "I didn't realize they were so young -- you just don't realize people are taking advantage of our little ones, and robbing them of their innocence," DiSabatino said.

One of the sponsoring events, Selah Freedom, plans to launch a "sex trade support group" in three weeks in Bradenton, said Elizabeth Fisher, chief executive officer.

The support group will probably offer a "12-step" way to a more healthful lifestyle, and will take place in a church off 14th Street West, where there's a concentration of prostitutes, she said.

"We have outreach teams in brothels and sex trade sites," said Fisher.

One out of every three women report being sexually abused, with the true number possibly as high as one of every two, Fisher said.

Fisher described a Sarasota victim she met last week, who was in her 20s, and had been sexually abused since the age of 3.

When the girl was 13, she began prostituting herself along U.S. Hwy. 41, and by age 15, had acquired a pimp who tattooed his name like a brand on her neck, and kept her in virtual slavery, Fisher explained.

Local women rescued her and now, the victim is in recovery, Fisher said.

"It takes a lot of people doing something," said Mary Frances Bowley, chief executive officer and founder for Wellspring Living, a nonprofit based in Tyrone, Ga., that co-sponsored the event.

Help from law enforcement, the medical community, financial donors, and volunteers are all necessary to halt abuse of the young, she said.

A white umbrella is her organization's symbol, its color representing the innocence of children and its form representing protection, said Bowley.

"Almost everyone I've worked with in my cases, they start when they are 12 or 14, and these guys are taking advantage of them because of their vulnerable position to make money," said Camila J. Wright, senior assistant district attorney in Fulton County, Ga.

There are many such cases in both her area and in Bradenton-Sarasota as well, she said.

Girls are often sexually abused at home first -- 70-90 percent, Wright said.

"They don't even actually know what's normal, they don't always know they're being forced," she said.

Information, www.selahfreedom.com; 941-677-8840.

Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031. Follow her on Twitter @sarawrites.com.

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