Florida has the third-highest reporting of human trafficking in the country, behind only California and Texas, and the Tampa Bay area consistently ranks third in the state behind Miami-Dade and Orlando. Addressing this urgent and ongoing crisis will require bold and concerted action from activists, community leaders and policy makers.
Since 2007, the National Human Trafficking Hotline has identified over 15,000 victims of human trafficking in Florida, including 1,253 in 2021 alone. By far, the most common type of trafficking is sex trafficking, but hundreds of victims have been made to work as agricultural workers, domestic servants, and other types of forced labor.
NOT ALWAYS ABOUT MONEY
Trafficking occurs whenever one person takes advantage of the vulnerabilities of another person for commercial gain. It doesn’t have to involve money; in fact, when children are involved, it’s rarely about money. Most often, it’s about food, shelter, a place to sleep, a gift, drugs – or the promise of love and acceptance.
Sadly, Florida has myriad opportunities for traffickers to find both victims and commercial opportunities to exploit those victims. Florida is attractive to traffickers because we have a large population, including densely populated urban areas, as well as abundant tourism, major events, and great weather. We also have industries such as agriculture, landscaping, construction, and high-end hotels – all of which are attractive to traffickers.
LACK OF SUPPORT STRUCTURES
Forget any stereotypes you might have about human trafficking. The victims are not just female, and they’re not just illegal immigrants. Anyone who is in a vulnerable position is at risk of being trafficked.
Poverty, lack of educational opportunities, and even simple relocation are all risk factors. In fact, children who have recently moved with their families from another city or another state are inherently at risk because they lack the established support structures of family, friends, neighbors, teachers, and caregivers who know them and are able to spot signs of trouble. Sadly, some kids are even trafficked by their own families – a horrifying situation that is much more common than most people realize.
The good news is that we can address the root causes of vulnerability that make trafficking possible. We can address family issues with support structures. We can take steps to make sure there are financial and educational opportunities available to everyone. We can create support networks that stay intact even if a child moves from one place to another.
WE NEED A COLLABORATIVE APPROACH
We can also pass laws that address the root causes of human trafficking. Stiffer penalties for buyers, for instance, would help to reduce demand. Requiring cell phones to be sold with safety features automatically enabled, instead of needing to be turned on, would help parents stay ahead of predators who target children.
But we can only end the atrocity of human trafficking by employing a collaborative approach that brings together government agencies, NGOs, education systems, business systems, and faith-based systems. No one element is sufficient on its own, but together these systems can succeed in eliminating vulnerabilities before they are exploited by traffickers.
THE ROLE OF THE CHURCH
The core of this collaboration must be the church. The others are support systems, but the church is the one entity with the ability to be an effective leader in the fight against human trafficking.
That’s why I was proud to participate a roundtable discussion on February 21 hosted by Concerned Communities for America. This event brought together faith leaders from the Tampa area who are already invested in this fight, along with community activists who are dedicated to protecting the most vulnerable members of our community.
We discussed both tactical and strategic strategies to prevent trafficking, such as mentoring, economic opportunity, and building strong family structures. Everyone has a role to play in the fight against human trafficking. We cannot let these victims be forgotten and overlooked any longer.
Human trafficking is an atrocity that affects every community, but it’s particularly severe here in Florida. But if we can develop effective strategies to stop human trafficking in Florida, we can stop it everywhere.
Corporal Alan Wilkett (Ret.) recently retired from the Pasco Sheriff’s Office where he served for almost 15 years, concluding a career in law enforcement that lasted nearly 25 years. Corporal Wilkett was recognized as the 2017 Florida Human Trafficking Law Enforcement Official of the Year and recently received the Law Enforcement Lifetime Achievement Award from the Florida Crime Prevention Association. He currently serves as President of Warrior321.