For victims of human trafficking, a ‘Life of Freedom’

The Life of Freedom center gives survivors of sex exploitation and human trafficking an opportunity to learn leadership, job skills and financial independence.

06/28/2012 5:00 AM

06/29/2012 8:06 AM

As a new center to help abuse victims prepared to open its doors, Anna Beard recalled a photograph of herself at age 17 taken by the man she thought was her boyfriend. The wide-eyed girl in the Polaroid picture — unsmiling, wrapped only in a blanket — barely resembles the poised, eloquent 26-year-old speaking with guests earlier this week at the Life of Freedom center for victims of human trafficking.

With the trace of a southern accent from growing up in North Carolina, she described how her 40-year-old guitar teacher told her that she was beautiful when she was in high school. He told her that she should be a model. That she should let him take pictures of her.

After about six months, he wanted her to pose in more sexually explicit positions. Beard, who got kicked out of her house after numerous fights with her parents, moved in with him. Eventually, he began to drug her and she would wake up to evidence of having been with other men. Sometimes he kept her chained to the bed. He fed her based on performance.

“He kept a tally on the calendar of how many times I was raped,” Beard said. “Hundreds of times.”

She shared her story as a survivor with guests who attended the opening on Tuesday night of the Life of Freedom Center, one of Miami’s first walk-in support centers for victims of human trafficking. Beard, now an advocate, is in Florida for the summer to help the LoF center welcome its first participants in July.

Florida has a complicated collection of services to address the problem that is not easily defined or categorized. Human trafficking includes illegal labor and sexual exploitation, and affects both international and domestic victims. Depending on their case, victims pass through all parts of the system: law enforcement, nonprofits, homeless shelters, foster care, immigration lawyers, task forces, drug rehab. Most providers agree that the many faces of human trafficking make it difficult to have a regimented response.

“That’s what makes trafficking so hard to identify: there’s no typical case,” said Regina Bernadin of the International Rescue Committee, which deals exclusively with international victims. “You can have 10 indicators, and then the next case has none of those.”

The LoF center will partner with local and national service providers to teach life skills to victims of commercial sexual exploitation and human trafficking. It is not a group home or a shelter. Nor does it provide counseling or legal assistance. The LoF center will teach leadership, job skills and financial independence, and give victims the opportunity to make and sell their own jewelry and other products.

“This is a great opportunity for victims of human trafficking,” Beard said. “Money’s been made off them and a lot of them never see the money they make. Now they get to make a profit off something they created, and that’s an extremely empowering feeling.”

Founder Jorge Veitia describes the center as a “circle of protection” for girls who have escaped the immediate dangers of human trafficking, but remain vulnerable unless they have other avenues to join society in a healthy way. This faith-based nonprofit also encourages members of the community to go through a 14-hour mentor training to work with girls who are referred by law enforcement or come on their own seeking help.

“If you understand the cycle of abuse, these girls are enslaved long after they’re off the street,” Veitia said.

To be classified as incidents of human trafficking, there has to be an economic component where something of value is exchanged, and there is restriction of movement, whether by physical or psychological means, Bernadin said. And there have to be people willing to pay for sex.

“The No. 1 risk factor [for commercial sexual exploitation of children] is when children are in demand. And we have a large demand population in Miami,” said Sandy Skelaney of Kristi House, a Miami center to help child victims of sex abuse.

The character of the crime makes it hard to get accurate numbers of victims, but Skelaney, who has worked with more than 200 victims of commercial sexual exploitation since 2008, said that the number of reported cases barely scratches the surface. A study from Florida State University found that Florida has the third highest number of reported sex trafficking cases, after California and Texas.

The number of recognized victims in South Florida is increasing, partly because there is more awareness, but also because there is more crime of this type taking place, according to Tyson Elliot, the statewide human trafficking coordinator for the Department of Children & Families.

“There are more street gangs and organized crime getting into human trafficking because there’s more money to be made than selling drugs,” he said. “If a bad guy spends $1,000 on drugs and then goes and sells it for $2,000, his product is gone, and he spends his profit buying more product. With human trafficking it’s different. If someone pays him for a girl, he can go and sell her again that night.”

In a high-profile case made public this week, police arrested four alleged pimps who were accused of soliciting and selling girls who were in foster care. The victims were all minors who were living in a group home. The sex-trafficking ring charged about $100 for each encounter, of which the girls were paid between $30 and $40, police said.

Florida passed the Safe Harbor Act in April to give law enforcement the option of delivering children who are forced into prostitution to a safe house instead of arresting them. The law also increases civil penalties for people who orchestrate the commercial sexual exploitation of children.

Yet even with more attention on this issue, much of the support to help human trafficking victims still functions in an ad hoc way, with different organizations focusing on different kinds of victims.

Veitia wants the LoF center to be a resource to pick up where other services have left off, teaching life skills to victims and educating the community about this issue. Instruction will follow the model established by the Fields of Hope program in North Carolina that reaches out to victims with concrete skills and opportunities “to turn a profit in something that isn’t sex,” Veitia said.

Anna Beard suffered two years of abuse before she was able to move in with a friend and escape. Her abuser died in 2009 without ever paying for his crime. When Beard went to his family’s house to get some of her stuff, she found out that the Polaroid pictures she thought were just for him were part of a profitable pornography business.

Now, she is looking forward to working with other victims and educating the general public about an issue that too often flies under the radar.

“You have to understand that there are crazy people out there that want to hurt you, but you don’t have to fall for that; you do have a choice,” Beard said as a message to other victims of human trafficking. “I want to show them that you can go from something where you feel so empty and worthless to something where you’re completely restored.”

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