Weaver Center calls on legislators to expand help for sex-trafficking victims, build on Safe Harbor Act
By Beth Reese Cravey Wed, Feb 5, 2014 @ 4:27 pm | updated Wed, Feb 5, 2014 @ 11:19 pm
With Florida third in the nation in human trafficking, the Jacksonville-based Delores Barr Weaver Policy Center has called on legislators to “vigorously” protect, enforce and fund the year-old Florida law designed to help victims of child sex trafficking.
In a position paper released Wednesday, the center recommended lawmakers uphold the “original intent” of the Safe Harbor Act, which took effect January 2013 and focuses on referring victims to services rather than treating them as criminals.
Potential legislation to allow involuntary hospitalization of sex-trafficking victims, which was discussed in a Jan. 14 meeting of the state House Healthy Family Subcommittee, would “be bad public policy,” said Lawanda Ravoira, the policy center’s president and CEO.
Ravoira said she plans to address the subcommittee to argue against involuntary hospitalization, which the position paper said “can have serious unintended consequences.”
“We want to make sure they do not roll back what is a very good law,” she said.
According to the position paper, “Criminalizing victims in a razor wire lock-up or other restrictive environment is not the answer and goes against the original intent of the legislation.”
The position paper’s timing coincided with the expansion of the policy center, including the opening of The Girls Center and the launch of ArtWorks for Freedom JAX, a human-trafficking awareness campaign.
Other center recommendations were strong prosecution of offenders to reduce demand and “adequate funding” of specialized training. The Safe Harbor Act initially only received $1 million in funding; $4 million is included in the governor’s proposed budget.
Also recommended were mentoring from trafficking survivors and more safe houses for victims, including two in North Florida. Jacksonville is third in the state in human-trafficking cases, but there are no safe houses in North Florida.
“Florida at this time is neither prepared to meet the complex needs of victims nor to address how to effectively identify risk factors and implement effective interventions,” the paper said.
Ravoira said Florida needs a statewide, unified approach.
“The treatment … is an emerging field,” she said. “We are calling for an open dialogue.”
At the House Healthy Family Subcommittee meeting, human-trafficking experts said 80 percent of Florida sex-trafficking victims are girls and women. Some are brought in from other states, but most are recruited in the state, at bus stations, malls, schools, even outside juvenile justice hearings in the halls of courthouses. Many of the victims are runaways escaping from abuse.
State Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Port St. Lucie, who chairs the panel, said the subcommittee would have “ongoing discussion” and that she was “anticipating a committee bill” will be filed.
Terry Coonan, executive director of Florida State University’s Center for the Advancement of Human Rights, urged the lawmakers to be “very, very cautious” about involuntary hospitalization of sex-trafficking victims.
“You’ve taken away their freedom and just repeated what the pimp has already done,” he said.
But Ronald Book, president of South Florida-based Lauren’s Kids Foundation, which works to prevent childhood sexual abuse, told them that such “lockdown” treatment centers should be considered. Involuntary commitments are already allowed under the Baker Act, which provides for psychiatric hospitalization when someone is a danger to themselves or others, and the Marchman Act, which is used to hospitalize youth for substance-abuse services, he said.
“While it is controversial … we do it with the Baker Act. We do it with the Marchman Act,” he said. “These young ladies are in effect nothing different than an addicted individual.”
Sex-trafficking survivor Barbara Amaya, who came to Jacksonville to speak at Wednesday’s event, said lockdown is not the answer.
“No, no no,” she said.
Victims need specialized care, such as safe houses where they can build trusting relationships with survivors and counselors. They may well run, she said, but they need to know there is a safe place to come back to.
Also, law enforcement, mental health professionals and other people who work with sex-trafficking victims need specialized training. Pimps are “experts in … manipulation and coercion” and have established strong bonds with their victims, convincing them that no one else will listen to them, Amaya said. Victims don’t see escaping as an option.
“There are no metal chains. There are mental chains,” she said.
Beth Reese Cravey: (904) 359-4109
BY THE NUMBERS
■ From January 2010 to January 2013, the Florida Department of Children and Families investigated 1,266 human-trafficking cases.
■ Since the activation of the National Human Trafficking Report line by Polaris Project in 2007, Florida has ranked third nationally for calls to the tip line, following California and Texas. In 2013, 1,722 calls came in from Florida.
If you have information about suspected human trafficking of a child or adult in Florida, call the Florida Abuse Hotline tollfree at (800-962-2873).
For suspected human trafficking anywhere else in the United States, call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center toll free at (888) 373-7888.
DELORES BARR WEAVER POLICY CENTER
The Policy Center is at 1022 Park St., Suite 301, Jacksonville. For more call (904) 598-0901