Human trafficking has gained a lot of attention recently, but it has been going on a long time. Most of us believe it doesn’t exist in our neighborhoods, but we are wrong; human trafficking is pervasive and well hidden in Northwest Florida communities. Trafficking has many faces:• A young man enlisted in the U.S. military is afraid he will be discharged because of compromising photos taken of him without his knowledge. He is blackmailed for almost all his monthly income by someone he has never even met except on the internet.• A young girl is enticed into a relationship on social media by someone who befriends her and gives her expensive purses and jewelry. That person then threatens that he will harm her younger sister if the girl doesn’t provide nude photos demanded of her.• A woman has no other option except to perform sex acts for money so she can provide food, clothing and shelter for her children.• A teenager whose family sends him from South America to take a promised job in the U.S. When he arrives, he learns that he must pay$250,000 for his freedom by turning over 90percent of his weekly minimum wage paycheck to his abductor.• A child must steal from local retailers and sell drugs to schoolmates in order for a relative to allow her to continue sleeping in his home when she has nowhere else to go. All of these are real examples of human trafficking right here in Northwest Florida. Shocking, right? Sergeant Jason Comans, who leads the Missing Persons Unit of the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office, identifies and intervenes on behalf of kids who are at risk to become trafficked. He shares that he works with numerous agencies, including Department of Children and Families, Gulf Coast Kid’s House, Call to Rescue, Escambia Search and Rescue and multiple faith-based agencies to provide the best outcomes for victims. Sergeant Comans’s task force investigates perpetrators through information sharing, intelligence sharing and arrests when appropriate.
Community organizations like NISSI, Magdalene’s House, Gulf Coast Kid’s House and others provide resources to the victims to help victims with their recovery and restoration. Officers have received training on how to interact with victims and recognize when they are stealing or selling themselves because they are being coerced and to understand that the victim may not have a choice in using drugs or engaging in other criminal activities. Often, teens are drawn into trafficking through social media. Abusers find teens who need something, who are lonely, who need money, who need affirmation. They fill the gap, then set the hook. Teens become afraid or embarrassed to tell a parent, or they may feel they are protecting their family or a younger sibling from threats made by the perpetrator. Residents in our area are fighting back against sex and labor trafficking. Real estate professionals Terry Mahoney and Lindy Hurd came together to create an annual Human Trafficking Summit in Northwest Florida. Attendees hear how to spot the signs of a human trafficking victim, real stories of rescue and redemption, the reality of what human trafficking is and how close it is to home. Sara LaFevers, president and CEO of the NISSI Project, reports that Network of Immediate Services for Survivors International provides immediate care for victims up to seven days and works with a network of aftercare long-term providers for victims of human trafficking. Reportedly, ninety percent of the time a victim is arrested for stealing, drug abuse or other crimes. “Sometimes a survivor is given a list of resources or a hotel voucher, ”LaFevers said. “The trauma a person experiences limits them to mental and emotional states at the age where the abuse started. You can’t expect a twelve-or fourteen-year-old to navigate life. To have people come alongside them to help them navigate resources will be a game changer.” NISSI is unique in the entire state of Florida and is being looked at as a pilot for potential expansion throughout the state. Magdalene’s Gifts and Gatherings is a gift shop with profits going to fund care for those who have been trafficked. The shop is now located in what once was a massage parlor where women were trafficked. The massage parlor was raided in 2019 and the business owner was convicted, paving the way for the space to be repurposed. Nearby residents were shocked to learn that they had been driving past the building daily, ignorant to the abuse. “It was a God thing – the incident triggered something in people’s hearts. We didn’t know the scope of human and sex trafficking,” Josie Cotti of Magdalene’s House said. The same building that was trafficking victims now helps provide revenue for Magdalene’s House, a place for victim recovery. Magdalene’s House offers counseling to help make victims whole after their abuse and resources for women who need to move out of the area for their safety.
“Law enforcement gets the perpetrator off the street. Prosecutors put them in jail for as long as possible. Service providers help make the victim whole again. We really need funding – a community response of pouring into service providers and nonprofits, wherever their needs are. That is where victims get their healing.”— Gretchen Busbee, victims witness specialist for the United States Attorney’s Office, Northern District of Florida