The statistics on human trafficking are chilling, and victims' stories even more so. Southwest Florida is fortunate to have Sarasota-based Selah Freedom offer a life preserver to young women ensnared in prostitution by intimidation, coercion and violence.
The nonprofit organization notes that Manatee County has a large number of sex trafficking victims. The state ranks third in the nation for reports of children forced into the sex trade.
According to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, between 100,000 and 300,000 American children fall into sex slavery every year -- an extraordinary and troubling number of youngsters robbed of their lives.
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. Many are runaways trying to escape sex abuse by a relative or acquaintance only to become further victimized.
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Selah Freedom's vital mission includes residential homes to serve women who seek to escape the sex trade and their captors.
After the organization's first long-term home opened in November 2013 in Sarasota, with space for four young women, just last month Selah Freedom expanded to a five-acre property and residence in East Manatee that can house up to 16 trafficking victims.
Selah co-founders Elizabeth Fisher and Laurie Swink are dedicated to rescuing women from a lifetime of misery and slavery.
The organization offers mentoring, support and recovery groups, counseling, life skills training, educational support and job placement services to anyone.
The residential units are for women ages 18 to 28 since there are many homes in the region for minors. Even Selah's two homes fall far short of the need, with Fisher telling Herald reporter Kate Irby in a July interview that "I could fill up 50 beds tomorrow like that" -- snapping her fingers.
Selah Freedom's mission dovetails perfectly with Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi's strong strategy to combat human trafficking.
In January, Bondi hosted the first anti-human trafficking workshop for businesses to engage their services, armed with knowledge about recognizing the signs of slavery and reporting their observations.
She expanded the scope of that mission in late July by announcing a partnership that equips emergency medical personnel with deeper knowledge, such as common health-care indicators of trafficking, rapid assessment questions and recommended courses of action in suspected cases.
Bondi is also striving to raise public awareness of this disturbing issue, via billboards, social media and other online resources.
The Manatee County Sheriff's Office 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, and some detectives get additional specialized training. MCSO handles these cases for all the municipalities in the county, too.
Thanks to Florida's Safe Harbor Act, enacted in 2012, the state's emphasis shifted away from handling sexually exploited children as delinquents and prostitutes, instead 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.
Selah Freedom, which works with trafficking survivors in Manatee, Sarasota and Hillsborough counties, now offers a pair of safe houses with a wide array of programs to give survivors a new life.
"It's a whole deal of unprogramming and reprogramming," Fisher told Irbey.
The organization currently operates solely on private donations. Bradenton's Pentecost Foundation pledged $250,000 in a matching gift last year, and Selah Freedom did raise that amount from supporters to win the entire gift.
That success triggered the foundation's release of another $250,000 Matching Challenge for 2014. So every dollar raised until the end of the year will be doubled.
Your donations are critical to the nonprofit's operations. Visit selahfreedom.com, email info@SelahFreedom.com or call 941-302-2299. You'll be helping rescue those lost in netherworld of prostitution, violence and drugs -- and furthering Selah Freedom's profoundly important mission.