206: Human trafficking is a pervasive, local problem, Edison panel says
Human trafficking is a pervasive, local problem, Edison panel says
By VICTORIA MACCHI
Thursday, January 26, 2012
Human trafficking isn't an international problem, activists and law enforcement officials said Thursday night in Fort Myers.
It's local, they said. And there is always more to be done.
"It's such a pervasive problem, how can it not be a priority?" said Sally Beckett of the Lee County-based Children's Advocacy Center who participated on the panel during the last of three trafficking awareness events at Edison State College this month.
An audience of about 150 people gathered to hear Beckett and five other representatives from non-profit agencies, law enforcement, and advocacy centers discuss how the treatment and prosecution of human trafficking — especially sex trafficking — has evolved in Southwest Florida.
"Four years ago, you never heard the term (human trafficking) around the office or shelter. Now you hear everyone talking about it," said Yaro Garcia of the Abuse and Counseling Treatment Center in Fort Myers, who also is co-chair of the Southwest Florida Regional Human Trafficking Coalition. "Now we get one client a month, sometimes one every 15 days."
Awareness among local and state agencies about the scope of the problem, how to treat victims, and how to address the issue publicly has changed for the better, the panel agreed. The trafficking continues, however, so the work to combat the source of the crime and help its victims goes on.
Communication between organizations that provide services for victims improved over the years, as did law enforcement's approach to cases, the panel said.
Lt. Brad Hamiliton of the Lee County Sheriff's Office admitted the first human trafficking case his agency addressed years ago could have been handled much better.
"At some point I would like to go back and talk to (the victim) ... try to explain to her that her suffering was worth something," Hamilton said. "We learned from her suffering and I said 'never again.' There are people getting help because she didn't at the time."
The series of events at Edison coincided with a statewide effort in January surrounding National Human Trafficking Awareness Day on Jan. 11. Universities as well as law enforcement agencies and social services organized speakers, film screenings, and panels throughout Florida to educate the public.
Lauren Mueller, a second year anthropology student who organized the event under the newly-formed Students Advancing Human Rights club, said she wanted to increase awareness "for the victims of the past, present, and trying to diminish the ones of the future."
Her initiative began Jan. 9 with a screening at Edison of "Immokalee U.S.A.," a film about farmworker exploitation. The following week, trafficking survivor Teresa Flores spoke to an audience of about 140 people about being sexually exploited as a teen in Michigan.
Low prosecution rates nationwide indicate the difficulty of bringing justice to the victims and putting perpetrators behind bars, the panel said. Changing public perceptions about human trafficking, such as considering certain cases of prostitution to be sex trafficking or accepting that the problem is local as well as global, are the next steps to a take.
Nationwide, from January 2008 and June 2010, federally funded task forces opened 2,515 suspected cases of human trafficking for investigation, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. About 80 percent of them were classified as sex trafficking, while about 10 percent were considered labor trafficking.
© 2012 Scripps Newspaper Group — Online
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