As dangers for teens on the internet multiply, police education campaigns become a two-way street for recognizing abusers.
Project DoVE, which stands for Domestic Violence Education, teaches students how to recognize the signs of teen dating violence, abuse and human trafficking, but often teens are the ones educating police on the newest cons.
Since Miami-Dade police started the program in 2007, advocates have gotten some form of their message in front of nearly 70,000 children and teens. The talks are targeted to kids from 12 to 17, but the lessons can be tweaked to fit the audience’s needs.
“It’s a lot of thinking on your toes,” said Teresa Guzman, a victim advocate who works with Project DoVE.
Project DoVE stepped up its schedule in 2010 when it began receiving annual grants from The Women’s Fund, said Fund Executive Director Marilyn March. Miami-Dade County matches the grants, which pay for an officer and a victim advocate to offer around 24 presentations a year.
This year, The Women’s Fund gave Project DoVE the inaugural Honorable Judge Amy Karan Legacy Fund grant, whose namesake died in 2013 at 54 of a rare neurological disorder.
Karan was elected in 1995 and assigned to the Domestic Violence Division. She became the unit’s administrative judge two years later. She is credited with closing a loophole that allowed convicted abusers to hold onto their concealed carry license.
Fran Katz, director of programming for The Women’s Fund, said the organization supports the “remarkably effective” program because it helps break the cycle of violence.
“So many kids grew up in homes that have domestic violence that they think that’s the natural way of relationships. That if he loves you, that’s what he does,” Katz said.
Project DoVE doesn’t advertise. News of the program travels by word of mouth, Guzman said. Sometimes schools call when they have the same problems Guzman talks about, like nude photos spread around campus, students caught up in human trafficking or issues with domestic abuse.
“All teens want to know, ‘if I send my photo out and it goes viral, will I be arrested?” Guzman said.
The answer? Possibly. Once a sexual photo spreads beyond the original, consensual parties, those involved can be charged, she said. Especially if the photo has a minor in it.
Although the program was designed around domestic violence education, it soon expanded to internet safety, date rape, consent and human trafficking.
Miami-Dade is a hotspot for human trafficking — where someone is forced to engage in prostitution against their will. A trafficker often starts a relationship a victim in a seemingly friendly way, Guzman said.
Traffickers reach out to young people on the street or through social media and offer plenty of money for vaguely described jobs. Sometimes they buy their targets gifts or pretend to be in a loving relationship at first, in a behavior known as grooming.
“It’s not like the movie ‘Taken’,” she said.
Whenever she talks about trafficking in schools, Guzman said students want to know how to identify potential traffickers. “They’re always asking ‘for a friend,’” she said. “Then they call me later and tell me more.”
Through Project DoVe, Miami-Dade police have received tips about traffickers that have led to arrests. Guzman said students often tell her about new techniques traffickers use before police find them, which Guzman said makes her educational mission all the more urgent. Teens are on the front lines of these crimes, and Guzman is worried they don’t realize it.
“They’re not aware of the dangers on the internet. They think they’re invincible. They think the world’s not out to get them,” she said.
Her goal with Project DoVE is to use resources and conversations to convince young people that they’re not alone, that there are people on their side if they’re in trouble.
“They should know they’re a part of Miami-Dade,” Guzman said. “We’re here to help.”
How to get involved
If you want to schedule a Project DoVE presentation email email@example.com or contact Miami-Dade Police Department’s SVU unit
If you believe you are a victim of Human Trafficking or suspect an adult is a victim of human trafficking, visit the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, or call at 1-888-373-7888. If you suspect a child is a victim, call the Florida Abuse Hotline at 1-800-96-ABUSE.