Once you know something horrible is happening to children right in your own neighborhood, what do you do? What do you do when you realize that children are being held against their will nearby and forced to work, to prostitute themselves as slaves?
You cannot go back to your old way of looking at your world in good conscience without seeing the problem. You cannot pretend that you never heard about their suffering. You cannot ignore the knowledge that a 13-year-old girl was forced into prostitution and her eyelids were tattooed with her pimp's name, especially when you realize that every day you pass the motel where she was found by authorities.
Even though we'd like to believe that this was an isolated incident, the Herald’s front page last Thursday — 13-year-old girl forced into prostitution, then nude dancing at Miami Beach strip club, police say — with the detailed the story of yet another child found as a sex slave in this same area shows that it isn’t. These children cannot be placed in our rear-view mirror as if it they were random tragedies. They are our truth, they are our children.
Florida ranks third on the list for the number of reports to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center anti-trafficking hotline. Predators seek out and hunt children, the most vulnerable among us. With a third of our children living in poverty, Miami is fertile hunting ground for human trafficking.
For a host of reasons, 30,000 to 40,000 pre-teen and teenage runaways can be found in Florida on a consistent basis. Within 48 hours of hitting the streets, one third of runaways are lured or recruited into prostitution or pornography. The average age children become victims of prostitution is 11-14 years old. The law of supply and demand has made human trafficking a thriving business in South Florida.
In response to a meeting convened by the Greater Miami Jewish Federation’s Jewish Community Relations Council and Women’s Philanthropy, during which a panel of experts detailed this modern form of slavery, the federation formed the Task Force to Combat Human Trafficking. Our mission is to raise public awareness of the prevalence of human trafficking in Miami-Dade County and Florida and to advocate to strengthen state statutes.
The Task Force’s first step is to raise awareness within our own Jewish community. We launched a countywide awareness campaign in which congregational rabbis were urged to focus their sermons on this issue on Saturday, Jan. 11, National Human Trafficking Awareness Day. More than a dozen rabbis of all religious streams have committed to speak about this issue.
In addition, in alliance with the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office, a bold community-wide awareness campaign, StopSexTraffickingMiami, has been developed to educate and activate Miami. Many area nonprofits are collaborating to use the powerful graphics of this campaign along with a countywide city bus campaign, sponsored by a variety of local business and organizations. Miami must move away from a city filled with passive witnesses and become a community with zero tolerance for the exploitation of our children.
Our Jewish community is rooted in our wider South Florida community — we all suffer when people are enslaved. Tolerating abuse is never acceptable. Ask yourself, how many adults looked the other way when that girl's eyelids were tattooed? How many watched as the most recent child was forced to do the unthinkable? Now that you know, can you pretend that you don't?
Here are some of the warning signs enumerated by the Miami- Dade State Attorney's Office Human Trafficking Hotline to help you identify victims:
Does a minor appear to be in a relationship with an older person? Is this older person controlling the minor, or isolating him/her from friends and family? Has this minor received unexplained gifts, expensive nails or hair treatments? Is someone attempting to control him/her through debt, family, abuse, drugs, documents or deportation?
Look at the people you see. If someone in your neighborhood is in these circumstances, call the Human Trafficking hotline at 305-350-5567.
Nancy Zaretsky chairs the Task Force to Combat Human Trafficking, a joint project of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation’s Jewish Community Relations Council and Women’s Philanthropy.