President Obama has proclaimed January as National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, which serves to increase public awareness and education of this unrecognized and misunderstood problem occurring in our own backyards.
Many businesses, organizations and communities are doing their part by increasing awareness and implementing training on how to identify and combat human trafficking.
Through our work at the Florida Network of Youth and Family Services, I have experienced an inside look at helping human-trafficking victims get back on their feet.
In sharing my insight, I hope to shine some light on what these victims go through — even once they are in a safe environment.
In our daily work with young people who run away from home, get lost along the way and find themselves in our shelters, we compete for relevance in their lives with those who would do them harm.
If only they would stay long enough to learn to trust us, we might succeed in helping them face their problems and rebuild their lives.
Many of them do, in fact, choose to stay. They tolerate the restrictive environment of a program that does not permit many of the activities “normal” teenagers are free to pursue — much less activities they learned to help them survive the streets, such as couch surfing and hustling for their next meal.
Despite these restrictions, their decision to stay often hinges upon what our programs do and don’t do. They stay because they need warm food and hot showers, clean socks and a bed. They stay because they found understanding youth care workers and counselors who respect them and listen to them. We don’t try to exploit or degrade them in exchange for any of the services we offer.
We don’t judge them for where they have been or for what they have done to survive.
In spite of all this, sometimes they do leave. The pull of addiction, loyalty to friends still out there and fear of the unknown compel a teenager to leave a safe place and return to possible harm. They might even fear the retribution they face if they defy abusive and controlling people in their lives. Often they return to us, sometimes they do not.
We do know is that engagement in a positive and supportive community that provides resources and a pathway to education and life-skills development drastically improves overall life outcomes for these youth. Our challenge is to design services in a manner that makes staying, which is often the hardest decision, worth the risk.
This challenge is undeniably more difficult when the young person is under the manipulative control of someone who exploits them sexually for profit.
When this happens, we recognize the youth as a victim of minor sex trafficking, a term that reflects how much society has learned since the days of labeling them as teen prostitutes.
This changing perspective is long overdue.
The Florida Network works with the Department of Juvenile Justice, the Department of Children & Families and many other public and private partners to find ways to get critical services closer to victims and bring more safety to the therapeutic environment.
We respect every effort to find answers that help victims transition from a life of exploitation and suffering to a path of survival that affords them every opportunity to develop at their own pace and become healthy, successful adults.
Through our efforts and the community’s efforts, I hope to see an overall decrease in human trafficking and an increase in victims receiving therapeutic services.
John Robertson is the program services director of the Florida Network of Youth and Family Services.