New laws help fight human trafficking and rescue our children who have been victims of sexual exploitation

New laws help fight human trafficking and
rescue our children who have been victims of sexual exploitation
~ Editorial Submission by DCF Secretary David Wilkins: ~

This week, Florida becomes a pioneer in the battle against the complex and difficult issue of human trafficking. On Tuesday, Gov. Rick Scott signed House Bill 99, The Safe Harbor Act, which provides services to help victims who have been sexually exploited. In addition, Gov. Scott also signed House Bill 7049, which gives prosecutors the ability to better fight this despicable crime by imposing tougher penalties.

The words "human trafficking" conjure up images of women being brought to this country illegally to be sexually exploited, and that is a very brutal reality. However, there is another reality that we at the Florida Department of Children and Families battle every single day. Across America, almost 300,000 youth are at risk of becoming victims of commercial sexual exploitation. They are being trafficked in our own communities.

Children are being exploited for sex across this state, and in many cases we cannot even tell who they are. They are entrenched in a life of sexual exploitation and live in constant fear. Even when they are identified, it is complicated and difficult to give them the help they need to free them from the life they lead and the people who use them for their own gain.

These children are very vulnerable. Many of them have been victims of previous abuse or come from families that have abandoned them. Most suffer from low self-esteem, have ongoing substance abuse or mental health issues, and run away any chance they can. But just like all children, they are looking to be accepted and loved and to belong to someone. This leaves them as easy prey for criminals who exploit and abuse them. The lives of these children revolve around violence, drug use, forced sex and constant threats.

But thanks to courageous and committed people at our Department and among our many community partners like the Kristi House in Miami where Gov. Scott signed the new law, there is a unified commitment to crack down on criminals who are using and abusing our children and to offer an improved system of care to rescue and counsel the survivors.

The Safe Harbor Act allows children who are rescued from prostitution to get help through the dependency system instead of being placed in juvenile delinquency. The Human Trafficking bill allows law enforcement to focus on the true criminals, those who sexually exploit these vulnerable youth. Together, these bills allow our agency and our local contracted providers across the state to treat and help the victims of this abuse. They will receive intensive services in “safe harbors.”

These children are under physical and psychological control of their trafficker. Existing foster homes and foster parents may not be appropriate for their needs. The Safe Harbor Act will allow our community-based care partners to provide these children with specific services that will help them cope with the trauma they have endured.

These youth are not criminals. They aren't damaged, broken or a lost cause. They are children who have had horrible things happen to them, and it is up to all of us to provide them with the Safe Harbor they need to have a safe and healthy future and a fulfilling life.

If you are aware of any child or adult in an unsafe situation, please call the Florida Abuse Hotline at 1-800-962-2873. Thank you for joining us in improving our state's future one family at a time.

June 12, 2012