Congress to Study Trafficking Impact on Florida



As reported cases of human trafficking in Florida rise, Congressional leaders this week will hear from experts on the impact of the crime on the Gulf Coast and elsewhere. Elizabeth Fisher, founder of Sarasota-based Selah Freedom, will be among panelists speaking to members of the Florida Congressional Delegation at a meeting in Washington, DC on Wednesday.

Fisher says the Gulf Coast remains a “hotbed” for sex trafficking and that the number of young women rescued or receiving services from the organization has been tripling annually. She hopes speaking about Selah’s work on the issue translates into best practices getting exported around the country. “We will speak to setting standards, not just for Florida, but the nation, in terms of replicating our services throughout the country,” Fisher says.

She noted Selah helped create the nation’s first prostitution court diversion program and has helped with the operation of residential facilities for sex trafficking survivors locally and around the country, with the organization now operating in Florida, Illinois, Wisconsin and Missouri, with facilities in two other states likely to announce soon. Houston law enforcement leaders, meanwhile, have traveled to Sarasota to speak with experts in the local police force and at Selah about how to bring similar effective programs for fighting human trafficking back to Texas.

She also notes best practices from Boston groups have been transplanted and expanded in Florida. A survivor-led panel at the Boys & Girls Club here, Fisher says, recently resulted in one girl, initially skeptical of the teen education program, seeing the signs that her brother and his friends were operating a sex ring. “Gangs used to to drugs; now they run girls,” Fisher says. “We need girls to realize you don’t belong to a gang, you are being trafficked.”

Fisher will testify Wednesday alongside other Florida experts including: Dr. Suzanne Harrison, Florida State College of Medicine clinical programs director; Kimberly Grabert, Florida Department of Children and Families human trafficking prevention director; Jose Ramirez, Florida Department of Law Enforcement special agent; Bethany Tilot, Florida Department of Juvenile Justice statewide human trafficking director; and Michelle Guelbart, ECPAT-USA private sector engagement director.

US Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Sarasota, will co-chair the Florida delegation meeting alongside US Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fort Lauderdale.  “Human trafficking is a vile and monstrous crime against women and children,” Buchanan says. “Unfortunately, Florida is a hub for human trafficking and that’s why our delegation needs to work together.”

Hastings likewise lists human trafficking as one of the top issues he wants Congress to tackle this year, and says tourist economies like that in Florida have become major destinations for trafficking victims. “Human trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery, and the United States is one of the top destinations in the world for trafficked victims,” he writes on his website. “Every year, tens of thousands of people are trafficked to the United States from over 50 countries worldwide. Half of these victims are children, and nearly 80 percent are women.”

A DCF report released in December shows the Suncoast region, which covers 11 counties including Sarasota and Manatee, reported the second-most human trafficking incidents out of Florida’s six regions. The same report showed the Suncoast had a higher percentage of children at-risk of becoming victims than any other region in the state.

Buchanan notes that the US House in May passed the Put Trafficking Victims First Act, which calls for the federal government to develop methodologies to prevent victimization and encourage prosecution of human traffickers. The bill awaits action in the Senate.

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