These numbers show a disturbing trend: The state of Florida only began tracking the human trafficking of children in 2009 and found 43 cases. By 2011, the statewide figure soared to 427, according to the Department of Children and Families.
From January to October 2012, some 546 youth were reported as possible human trafficking victims to Florida's Child Abuse Hotline. And from 1998 to 2008, 503 children were charged with prostitution in Miami alone.
Manatee and Sarasota counties are bearing witness to this abhorrent uptick in the sexual exploitation of minors. At last week's Manatee County Commission roundtable on the burgeoning sex trade here, two nonprofit organizations joined commissioners in mapping out potential solutions. Fortunately, the state has already taken several concrete steps to combat this social disease.
Those Miami arrests are less likely today under Florida's Safe Harbor Act, signed by Gov. Rick Scott last June. Instead of incarceration, the law provides treatment -- intense counseling and therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder and other conditions spawned by sexual abuse. Law enforcement authorities can now deliver victims to DCF in lieu of arrest.
The act also exacts a heavy toll on those guilty of solicitation of prostitution, boosting the fine from $500 to a maximum of $5,000 -- which should be a deterrent.
There's a broad effort afoot to stem this problem. Last September, state and community leaders and child advocates attended the first Florida Children and Youth Cabinet Human Trafficking Summit to discuss strategies. Another summit will be held this coming fall.
The new CYC Human Trafficking Workgroup launched a public awareness campaign last month, and is partnering with the Florida League of Cities to help mayors and local task forces in conducting similar campaigns.
Manatee County is already involved in tackling this issue. At last week's roundtable, one of the sponsoring organizations, Selah Freedom, discussed plans to start a "sex trade support group" with a 12-step strategy to a healthier lifestyle. Selah Freedom intends to launch the group in several weeks at a church off 14th Street West, long a haven for prostitution.
Selah Freedom's chief executive, Elizabeth Fisher, recounted the story of a Sarasota woman in her 20s who had been sexually abused starting at age 3 and then turned to prostitution at 13. Two years later, she found herself a veritable slave to a pimp who tattooed his name on her neck as if claiming ownership. Predators seek out the vulnerable to enslave, courting them at first but quickly becoming abusive and controlling. Studies show the victims of child sex trafficking are often just 15 to 17, though some are younger. The vast majority have suffered sex abuse at home.
Manatee High School students learned about the warning signs of predatory behavior at a December presentation on international Human Rights Day. Similar eye-opening messages should be annual occurrences in the school district as part of the community's solution to trafficking.
Only recently has Florida started tackling this problem, and Manatee County is wisely following suit.