(MintPress) – While waging a war against the sex trafficking trade, Florida’s authorities have lost sight of the real victims.
Ruby, a former child sex slave said: “When I was arrested at 14 years old, the police didn’t care about me. It was all about finding the pimp, or did I know any of the hundreds of the men I was forced to have sex with? You’re shouted at, bullied and harassed by the police, left in a room for hours and then sent to a juvenile correctional center. What was my crime? I ran away from my father who raped me, to a guy who sold me for sex. So who’s the real criminal?”
Under Florida’s new legislation, the Safe Harbor Act, children like Ruby will no longer be seen as criminals; instead they will be treated as victims.
Florida’s hidden world of child sex trafficking has become so profitable in recent years that some drug dealers are changing their drug careers to prostitution. It’s easier to peddle children for sex than smuggle and deal heroine and cocaine. Next to drug trafficking, human trafficking is the most lucrative business for organized crime. It is estimated that the illicit human trafficking trade generates approximately $9 billion in profits each year for traffickers. And unlike drugs, human traffickers can continue to exploit their victims.
Speaking to Mint Press, Wansley Walters, secretary of Florida’s Department of Juvenile Justice said, “We’re seeing drug dealers convert their business plans. They have a commodity they can sell over and over.”
In response to this problem, lawmakers, with the aid of Florida’s Department of Juvenile Justice, Florida Department of Children and Families, heads of several children support agencies and Kristie House, a widely recognized child advocacy project, put together an aggressive and comprehensive piece of legislature to combat this illicit exploitative trade.
“We’re most proud that it was a group of legislators, across party lines, that helped put together the Safe Harbor initiative. It’s tough on criminals who sell children for sex and organized crime,” Walters said. “We’re not just looking at much longer sentencing, but criminals involved with sex trafficking can expect to have any assets made from this horrendous crime to be taken away from them. So this could be houses, business premises, money, cars, everything.”
Backed by both Florida’s Department of Children and Families (DCF) and the Department of Juvenile Justice, the Safe Harbor Act also raises the civil penalty for pimping from $500 to $5,000 per episode, with some of that money to be used for the creation of safe houses for young victims.
While this new law brings harsher penalties for the adults involved in sex trafficking, it also recognizes the traumatic experience that a child would have endured. This new law has overhauled the policing, detention center policy and replaced it with a new system with ongoing support, treatment and safe houses that work.
Foster Homes are not always safe
Pimps, like pedophiles, prey on vulnerable, troubled young children, and go to extraordinary lengths to attract and trap them. Using foster homes as a recruitment ground is just one of the methods that authorities have been monitoring.
“It’s a vile and dirty business, we’ve come across cases where girls in foster homes have been recruited by pimps to bring them other girls,” Walters said.
But it not just the foster homes that authorities are concerned with, it is the whole way traffickers target and recruit young vulnerable girls.
Ruby is 19 and still works as a prostitute without a pimp. As a former child sex worker, she believes that it will be hard for authorities to shut them down.
“These guys know where to find runaways. They know which schools, which foster homes and the service stations to hang around,” Ruby said. “They are good at getting their hooks into kids and once they have you, you’re their property and you can never leave. Even when you try to escape, where do you go? The police, yeah well that will lead you back to a home where people can sell you out to another pimp. And if you run, they will chase you and chase you. When you are 14 or 15 years old, there are not many places you can hide. And that’s if can run away; some girls were in a worse situation than I was, they were hooked on drugs.
“People have no idea of what it’s like to live as someone’s property. At 14 I had no family that cared, so I ran away and lived on the streets. After two days I met a guy who let me stay in his room. He gave me food and was really nice to me at first. It took me two years to leave that room. They beat you, they lock you in the room all day and you’ve no money of your own. They make it hard so that you can’t survive without them. Once when I got busted, the authorities sent me to juvenile detention center, he followed me. He used to smuggle in notes and small gifts. He knew what day I left the center and even the foster home I was sent to. He came and got me. One day I was walking down the street the next moment I was pushed into a car and I was back in that room seeing 10 clients a day.”
The Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) and Juvenile Justice Department are committed to seeing that police and other first responders have the resources to identify children at risk and to make the public aware of this hidden world of exploitation. Florida’s Safe Harbor Act requires police to turn over sexually exploited children who have been found to be abused, abandoned or neglected by their families to DCF for assessment and care. But the secrecy that surrounds this exploitative world has made it hard for authorities to effectively identify young people at risk.
Finding runaways is difficult
According to a Department of Justice funded survey, it is believed that there are 244,000 American children and youth estimated to be at risk of child sexual exploitation, including commercial sexual exploitation. It also revealed that the average girl’s first encounter with prostitution is at 12 years old. Many social workers believe that due to the secretive nature of this exploitative crime, it is hard to get an accurate picture, but many believe that the problem is far bigger than these figures suggest.
Police and authorities have a difficult problem identifying children forced into prostitution. Underage sex workers walking the streets are often difficult to spot. They don’t look like little girls. They dress provocatively and have a street-hardened manner. When arrested underage girls lie about their age, with no finger print identification in the criminal justice system, the girls are usually released on bonds, which their pimps pay.
“When you’re 14 years old and you’ve no family, the only person looking out for you is your pimp. I know it sounds crazy, but even if they beat you or worse – he is all you’ve got,” Ruby said. “So when you are busted, or the authorities find you, you’re scared you have somehow screwed up the only thing in your life, or worse, you feel like he hates you for causing this trouble and he will kill you. So you lie and do anything to get back out onto the streets.”
Wansley Walters agrees. “Some girls have been with the assailant for too long and have developed an emotional bond, that’s hard to break,” Walters said. “These girls are not the most sympathetic victims. They’re angry, they’re combative, they’re spitting mad — and frankly, if we’d been through what they have, we’d be that way too.”
The Department of Juvenile Justice and the Department of Children and Families are hoping that the changes in law will help in the fight to identify underage sex workers. By giving girls a safe house that is free from the influence of pimps and violence, it is hoped that this will encourage other girls to reveal their true age when found by authorities. For Ruby, she believes that the new law is heading in the right direction.
“I think is great, finally they’ve put the girls first, for once,” Ruby said. “I think it should help some girls, maybe the very young ones, out this business. I don’t know if it would have worked for me – I was just too afraid of my pimp to tell the authorities anything, but I hope it works for other girls.”
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