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Escarosa Human Trafficking Summit provides education and awareness

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Jennie McKeon
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WUWF Public Media

The state of Florida ranks third in the United States for human trafficking cases. According to the Florida Department of Children and Families, there were a total of 1,901 reports of human trafficking involving 1,463 children.

Addressing the need for more education and awareness, the Escarosa Anti-Human Trafficking Conference held online last Friday provided an in-depth look at the issue and how the state is working to protect victims.

State Rep. Michelle Salzman says Florida lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have proposed and passed bills that increase penalties for specific human trafficking violations, establish confidentiality between human trafficking victims and advocates, and redefine the definition of coercion in the past few years.

Salzman herself has made a $447,834 funding request for the Secret Place advocacy center in Pensacola.

“We in the state are really trying to be good partners and make sure the awareness is there,” she said.

The average age of a trafficking victim is 15 years old, explained Cpl. Alan Wilkett, who leads a human trafficking task force in Florida. During the virtual conference, he gave an update on the vulnerability of online users.

Platforms with anonymous user walls such as Yik Yak and Ask.fm give users the freedom to say whatever they want without consequence. Wilkett also warned of vault apps that can hide private videos and photos on your phone. Gaming systems can also be used to recruit.

“Games with chat features — a predator can jump in there and come across as a child using voice masking,” he said.

Mainstream social media apps have also proven to be problematic. Dani Pinter of the National Center on Sexual Exploitation shared a case of a 16-year-old who was exploited on TikTok and blackmailed into sending explicit photos and video which were then shared on Twitter. She also explained how users on Twitter can easily solicit for pornographic material of minors.

“I check once a week and they are still not blocking this material,” she said. “Users ask for images of 10- to 16-year-olds. There is no ambiguity. Big tech platforms are not doing enough.”

It’s not easy to investigate online predators as so many trends and apps emerge.

“Human trafficking is really a culture,” said Wilkett. “There’s all kinds of language and symbols. In the multiple years I’ve been doing this, I’ve accumulated a glossary of 240 words.”

In recent years, there have also been changes in the justice system when it comes to protecting victims. Kim Adams of Levin Papantonio (the firm sponsored the virtual conference) has been litigating human trafficking cases throughout the country

“The public perception has had to change,” she said. “(People) didn’t understand the life cycle of a trafficking victim. We’ve had to change rules and guidelines of how we litigate. We know that Johns (traffickers) need to be addressed.”

Adams said the firm has also been working to hold businesses who benefit from trafficking — such as major hotel brands — accountable and have filed lawsuits all over the country.

Survivors of trafficking who spoke during a panel at the conference said there is room for improvement when it comes to education. Like in the school system, said Tiffany Parker of the advocacy nonprofit Reclaim611.

“Nobody sees our children more than teachers. All of this is education. We also need to work with law enforcement and fire departments to teach them how to be a safe haven for trafficking survivors.”

“People are blind to it,” Parker continued, who is a survivor of trafficking. “Unless it is happening to (them) they don’t believe it’s happening.”

January is National Human Trafficking Month. During the month are a few opportunities to learn more about how to prevent human trafficking and better serve survivors. The NISSI Project will be hosting a volunteer training session on January 15. And on January 20, the Circuit 1 Human Trafficking Task Force will be hosting a summit from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the University of West Florida.