Last year, the Florida Department of Children and Families collected more than 2,100 reports of human trafficking. Florida consistently ranks in the top three states for the number of calls made to the National Human Trafficking Hotline.
Human trafficking for labor and sex is one of the most disturbing forms of human rights abuses in the world today. In the U.S., a child victim of human trafficking is defined as any child under the age of 18 who is engaged in commercial sexual exploitation (regardless of force, fraud or coercion) or labor exploitation by force, fraud or coercion. Children who lack stable housing, runaway and homeless youth, and sexual and gender minority youth face an increased likelihood of trafficking for sex or labor.
Schools play an important role in promoting student health and well-being by preventing, identifying and addressing trafficking of minors. For example, school-based programs focused on promoting healthy relationships and preventing adolescent dating violence provide the opportunity to discuss sexual and labor exploitation as another form of violence against adolescents. Training school personnel to recognize trafficking of minors and to make appropriate referrals to address the needs of these youth is critical.
Victims of human trafficking, whether adults or minors, men or women, very rarely view themselves as victims, much less self-identify as such. Children and adolescents who are at risk for these kinds of exploitation also may not recognize their individual risk. Special efforts are needed to increase the awareness of children and adolescents to help them avoid becoming victims, and to help victims and survivors obtain needed assistance.
Awareness alone is not sufficient to prevent human trafficking, however. Prevention strategies require a data-driven approach that guides collective action across local agencies and institutions, tailored to the specific vulnerabilities and needs of individuals and communities. These coordinated, community-based efforts to address a range of vulnerabilities across diverse groups have a chance of preventing human trafficking before it begins.
Pace Center for Girls has a specific focus on preventing sex trafficking. One in five girls come to Pace having reported prior sexual abuse, and 96 percent have risk factors in three or more areas that make them vulnerable to sexual exploitation, including family instability, unmet health and mental health needs, juvenile justice or child welfare systems involvement, and histories of victimization.
Pace Center for Girls works towards long-term solutions by building resiliency through gender-responsive services and support including physical health, mental health, legal aid and education. Girls develop coping skills in a safe and trusted environment. These services contribute to the empowerment of girls and young women and are critical to keeping them safe from trafficking.
Despite protection under the Federal Victims of Trafficking and Victims Protection Act of 2000, an estimated 293,000 children in the U.S. are currently at risk for commercial sexual exploitation, and approximately 100,000 children in the U.S. are victims of commercial sexual exploitation each year. Although sex trafficking dominates the human trafficking narrative, we must also expand our collective data gathering and improve our preventive systems. Efforts to address labor and sex trafficking of minors in Florida and across the U.S. need to confront demand and the individuals who commit and benefit from these crimes.
The recent passage of Florida HB 851 establishes a direct support organization for trafficking survivors. It increases training for law enforcement officers, hotel workers and medical professionals to better identify and aid victims of human trafficking. It develops a database of traffickers and those who solicit sex. While there is still much to be done, Florida has taken a stand on curbing the profitability of the sexual exploitation of our states most vulnerable children.
Marx is president and CEO of Jacksonville’s Pace Center for Girls.