By presidential proclamation, January is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, culminating on Feb. 1 with the annual celebration of National Freedom Day. Victims trapped in an underworld marked by drugs, violence and prostitution will not be celebrating freedom.
Florida stands at the epicenter of one aspect of modern-day slavery, ranking third in the nation for reports of children forced into the sex trade. The Sunshine State's inviting climate and reputation as a tourist mecca attracts human traffickers and predators as well as runaways, who are easy prey. Manatee County is not immune from this deplorable exploitation of youngsters.
Manatee County does not lack for exposure to this issue. Last January, the Manatee County commission staged a community roundtable about the exploitation of girls and women and dismantling the sex trade. In May, the Manatee County Bar Association gathered experts to discuss human trafficking at its annual Law Day event. In June, the Manatee Tiger Bay Club brought in law enforcement and community experts to delve into the topic. And last week, the Manatee League of Women Voters held a public event with similar experts.
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The message should be heard again and again until society gains the upper hand and spares more and more trafficking victims from a degrading and empty life of drug abuse, predatory pimps and bleak futures.
Most disturbing: The average age that girls fall into the sex trade is 12 to 14, the FBI notes. For boys, the age range is even lower -- from 11 to 13.
The majority of the victims of sexual exploitation are runaways who experience abuse at home or thrown-away youths abandoned by their parents. Once on the streets, they are easy targets. Traffickers groom their victims with bogus promises and drugs, hooking the youngsters with dependence on their intimidating pimps.
The Internet lure
Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi launched an awareness campaign last September to shine a spotlight on this scourge. The effort focuses on helping parents uncover the sexual exploitation of children online -- via a tip sheet about Internet safety.
Young girls are often lured into prostitution after online chats with older men who present false personal stories and promises. Parents should monitor their children's online activity to prevent this entrapment.
Florida's Safe Harbor Act, enacted in 2012, shifted the state's emphasis from handling sexually exploited children as delinquents and prostitutes, and now treating them as dependents and victims. Rather than incarceration, victims can enter "safe houses" for stabilization and assessment for foster care and other long-term placement.
MCSO dedicated to effort
Human trafficking crimes popped up on local law enforcement's radar several years ago, Major Connie Shingledecker of the Manatee County Sheriff's Office told this Editorial Board. That's around the same time frame that the Florida Department of Children and Families reported a disheartening surge in the number of children thought to be ensnared in trafficking.
The MCSO now works with its Sarasota counterpart and 12th Judicial Circuit's Office of the State Attorney to combat these crimes. MCSO deputies receive online training to learn how to spot victims of human trafficking. The state developed an online interactive video training only last year. Some Manatee detectives get additional specialized training.
The sheriff's office handles these cases for all the municipalities in the county, too.
With the state and regional task forces focused on the issue, more can be accomplished. These crimes need constant attention not just from law enforcement, the judicial system and child welfare agencies, but from the public as well.
Citizens should hold elected officials accountable for a strong and ongoing strategy to combat this, thus fulfilling the oath to protect and serve. Child abuse prevention programs, which Manatee County helps fund, are especially important.
Religious leaders from across the faith spectrum could promote awareness and muster congregants into action, be that calling on lawmakers to put greater emphasis on the poverty and crime shattering our youth or reaching out to at-risk children.
Public role vital, too
The public should play a key role by volunteering with Manatee's many organizations dedicated to improving the lot of low-income children and teenagers. And they should learn the warning signs that can identify children caught in the trafficking web.
Those include youth appearing malnourished, timid and submissive who avoid eye contact and talking to anyone other than their abuser, and who shows signs of physical abuse. A neck tattoo, for instance, could indicate a pimp's ownership.
Attorney General Bondi points out that prime places to run into victims are convenience stores and gas stations when pimps and traffickers stop for fuel and food. The public can help by reporting suspicious activity.
The battle against child sex slavery should entail a broad, multifaceted response from across society. Success will bring a brighter future to our children and our community.