Two bills that received unanimous support in the Florida House and Senate aim to cut down on human trafficking in the state, and are awaiting Gov. Rick Scott's signature.
One bill requires the Florida Department of Transportation to display human trafficking public-awareness signs at rest areas, turnpike service plazas, weigh stations, certain emergency rooms, strip clubs and businesses offering massage or bodyworks services not owned by a health care professional.
The signs identify who qualifies as a human trafficking victim and provides a help number to the National Human Trafficking Awareness Center.
Signage is particularly important to encourage the public to look out for human
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trafficking situations and for victims who have no idea what their options are, said Brook Bello, founder and CEO of More Too Life, a Sarasota-based organization that helps human trafficking victims.
It would have helped Bello when she was a victim of human trafficking years ago, she said, after being raped by a family friend and running away from home.
"If I would've seen a sign like this, I would've known it wasn't my fault," Bello said. "I really thought it was my fault, because I ran away."
Signs can appear at the front of businesses and also in bathroom stalls, where potential victims could take a moment to really read and identify with the information, said Elizabeth Fisher, founder and CEO of Selah Freedom, a Manatee-based organization that helps human trafficking victims.
"A lot of our survivors tell us that the only time a trafficker will leave a girl alone is not just in the main bathroom, but in the stall itself," Fisher said. "Sometimes that's the only opportunity they have to have a moment to even think, and to have something right in front of them is so vital because these women do not self-identify as being trafficked."
The second bill increases penalties for those who solicit prostitutes. Bello and Fisher said it's important to give more than a slap on the wrist to so-called johns and to let them know prostitution is not a victimless crime. The bill would make first-time offenders pay a $5,000 fine, perform 100 hours of community service and complete an educational program about the negative effects of prostitution and human trafficking.
"Affecting the demand side is a powerful tool," Bello said. "There's no supply without demand."
Fisher said the educational program is particularly important in cutting down on demand.
"Now they're realizing that, 'Oh my gosh, this is a girl who has been sold since she was like 12 years old on the streets,'" Fisher said. "And these men need to know better, and know that we have not yet found a girl out there working for herself. They've all been under the control of a pimp or a trafficker."
First offenses would be a first-degree misdemeanor, the second would be a third-degree felony and third or subsequent offenses would be a second-degree felony. Those convicted of second and subsequent offenses would have to spend at least 10 days in jail.
A federal bill on human trafficking passed Congress this week and is headed to President Barack Obama's desk. It would increase training for law enforcement and health professionals on human trafficking, create a fund for victim support and allow mothers to terminate parental rights of rapists.
The state bills have not yet been delivered to Scott for signing. He will have 14 days to sign them into law when received.
Kate Irby, Herald online/political reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7055 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow her on Twitter @KateIrby.