Stopping a scourge

A staffer from Kristi House, with a photographs of missing girls, prepares to walk the streets of Miami with a team in an effort to thwart sex trafficking.
A staffer from Kristi House, with a photographs of missing girls, prepares to walk the streets of Miami with a team in an effort to thwart sex trafficking. MIAMI HERALD

A recent editorial, Hurray, we’re No. 3?!, outlined several areas in which the state of Florida has come up short in providing many of its residents a better quality of life. It’s now the third most populous state, but lagging in education and healthcare funding and services for the elderly.

So it was a boost to see Florida touted as a national leader, one to be emulated, in a story this week on huffingtonpost.com, especially because of the seriousness of the issue: human trafficking and its soul-killing partner, sex trafficking. In a nation in which states have been slow to put funding behind their anti-trafficking laws, Florida, along with Minnesota, is recognized as an exception. Florida, huffingtonpost.com reports, put $3 million for trafficking victims’ services in its 2014-15 budget. It’s not a whopping amount, but it’s an acknowledgment that a problem exists. Next legislative session, lawmakers should also acknowledge its magnitude.

According to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, an anti-trafficking hotline, Florida ranks No. 3 in the number of cases reported. And according to Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle, Miami is Ground Zero, No. 1 in the state for this violent and criminal activity.

Contrary to the more common image of the victims of sex trafficking — women lured from the Philippines, South and Central America and other regions — here the majority of dehumanized children, young women and young men, are domestic victims, from South Florida and beyond.

Who are these young people, exploited by pimps who put their bodies on the market and keep them in line with intimidation, violence and — perversely — a feeling of caring and security? “The No. 1 indicator is being a runaway,” Ms. Fernandez Rundle told the Editorial Board. “They run away from home, where they might be abused, abandoned or neglected. They go from couch to couch, then to a cheap hotel.”

And that’s where the predators are. “They lure her — it’s usually a man and a woman. ‘Come with us, we’ve got a house,’” said Ms. Fernandez Rundle. “They give her new clothes, flowers — then they start bringing the men in.”

Miami-Dade’s anti-trafficking efforts have taken off in three short years, with the state attorney’s office taking the lead in persuading the Legislature to tailor laws to the state’s specific problems and then to pass the Safe Harbor Act, which orders the Department of Children & Families to provide shelter and other services to sex-trafficking victims under the age of 18. Those over 18 are a different matter. However, the state attorney, working with County Mayor Carlos Gimenez and Commissioner Rebeca Sosa, is converting an eight-unit building into living space where youths can receive counseling and mental-health services, among others.

Another building will be converted into a center — a “one-stop shop” — for human-trafficking victims, where DCF, Our Kids, domestic-violence shelters and other service providers will be under one roof, working more cohesively to provide enduring care.

Ms. Fernandez Rundle said that with the participation of schools chief Alberto Carvalho, education efforts will engage everyone from young students to faculty to bus drivers and custodians, not only to help identify possible victims — yes, many sexually exploited kids go to school — but to also lead to the prosecution of their predators.

While Florida has taken the lead in anti-trafficking efforts, clearly, Miami-Dade County is even further out front.