Few help options for victims of Miami-Dade child-sex trade, grand jury says

The members of a grand jury that investigated child sex trafficking in Miami-Dade County were surprised by something they found in their research: Nobody seems to know the best way to treat the victims.

The grand jury, which convened for about seven months starting last November, released a report Tuesday detailing its findings on the local human trafficking trade.

The report describes how many victims run away from shelters only to return to the men who enslaved them. Often the girls believe themselves to be in romantic relationships with their pimps. In some cases, they try to recruit new victims for their traffickers from among other shelter residents.

“It is time to commission a definitive study to determine once and for all what are the evidence-based best practices for the treatment and care of victims of domestic sex trafficking,” the report says. “It is, frankly, completely shameful that this has not been accomplished by now.”

Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle said that human trafficking has become a priority for her office. But the question still remains of what to do with victims once they are in state custody, given how many of them form “trauma bonds” with their victimizers.

“Sometimes the bond is so strong that the victim actually sees this sex trafficker as a savior,” Fernández Rundle said. “It takes a rewiring of their whole way of thinking.”

The in-depth study on victim treatment was one of 13 suggestions presented by the grand jury in its report. Among the others were establishing protections similar to those used for victims of domestic violence, such as issuing restraining orders against aggressors and setting up safe houses.

The 21 members of the grand jury were willing to acknowledge their initial ignorance on the subject of human trafficking in Miami-Dade.

“We thought human trafficking consisted of foreign-born persons brought under false pretenses to this country and put into forced labor, be it for sexual exploitation or otherwise,” the report says. “We were shocked and appalled to discover that, in what we thought was our modern, enlightened society, slavery still exists right under our noses”

That slavery begins when predators manipulate young girls, primarily ones from poor families, turning them into sex workers around the ages of 12 or 13. The grand jury was clear in stating that the real criminals are not the girls but the men who recruit them.

“Maybe he tells her he can get her a job ‘modeling.’ Or maybe he throws out the bait, asking if she needs a place to live,” the jury wrote. “This may go on for a while, until one day the abuse begins. The manipulator might say to her, ‘Hey, did you really think you could live here for free? You can pay the rent by having sex with my buddy.’ ”

The number of human trafficking victims in Miami-Dade is unknown, since the crime is very rarely reported. Nevertheless, experts call South Florida one of the three capitals of human trafficking, which at the national level is a $36 billion industry. The Miami metro area has also been ranked third in the nation in terms of the prevalence of child sex trafficking.

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