"Typically, when you think of human trafficking, you think of people loaded into cargo containers, and crossing the border," said Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle. "The thought is of other kids from other places." But Fernandez Rundle said of the majority of the cases she sees coming through her office, "the victims are not someone else's children. The victims are our girls from our schools."
The numbers are chilling.
"Five years ago, the state of Florida ranked No. 2 in the nation in the number of human trafficking cases reported," said Fernandez Rundle. "Las Vegas was ranked No. 1."
Since that time, Fernandez Rundle has partnered with organizations including the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Jackson Memorial Hospital, the University of Miami Medical Center, Camillus House, the Women's Fund, the Florida Legislature, which provides much-needed funding, and other local organizations, to develop a task force with both the law enforcement muscle and the medical and mental care needed to combat human trafficking on county streets.
The State Attorney's Office Forum on Human Trafficking was held recently at Jackson Memorial Hospital. The forum, called Healing the Wounds, represents a local collaboration of law enforcement, medical and community outreach organizations, ready to wage an all out war to stop human trafficking, not in far away countries, but right here on the streets of Miami-Dade County.
Each year, the coalition members gather together to look at the model, noting what has worked, what has failed, and how do they improve their efforts. The information gathered on human trafficking in Miami-Dade can indeed be alarming:
• Since forming the task force in 2012, the unit has worked with 534 victims of human trafficking;
• About 67 percent of those victims were local residents;
• The age of entry into prostitution in the U.S. is between 12-14 years old for girls, and between 11-13 years old for boys;
• In Miami-Dade, about 40 percent of victims are minors
• Victims experience ailments ranging from psychological trauma, psychiatric disorders and physical illnesses
With the awareness that the problem does exists on our streets, not only was there a renewed focus on the part of law enforcement, but the Miami-Dade's community as a whole has pitched in, donating shelter space for victims, and needed medical emotional and mental care.
A young woman came to the emergency room at Jackson Hospital, stating she had a tracking device in her. X-rays revealed that the woman did indeed have a tracking device imbedded under her skin, typically used to track animals. This led to the creation of the T.H. R. I. V.E. Clinic at Jackson Hospital, developed and designed with special procedures for the care of those escaping human trafficking.
When a trafficking survivor arrives at the clinic, medical staff is alerted to the involvement of human trafficking. The person in need of help is immediately held by the hand and escorted to an examining room. There is no waiting in a crowded waiting area as that in and of itself is believed to be traumatizing and further victimizes the individual. The patient is never referred to as a "victim," instead always as a "survivor" of human trafficking.
The location of the T.H.R.I.V.E Clinic is kept confidential for the safety of those in need of care and rescue, however survivors of human trafficking can obtain medical care by contacting Carmen Duran of the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office 305-547-0749.
The medical costs for survivors are paid by donations to the clinic. The care received includes checking for physical and emotional concerns, as well as diseases and infections. A silver lining: The percentage of sexually transmitted diseases among human trafficking cases is surprisingly low.
Sex trafficking, however, is not the only concern when it comes to human trafficking.
"People don't realize it's right here in our back yard. Human trafficking is taking place here in Miami-Dade County, from the beaches in the east, to the farm fields in the west," said Carmen Pino, assistant special agent in charge of the Human Trafficking section of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), a division of the Department of Homeland Security.
Pino pointed out the distinct difference between smuggling and trafficking.
"With smuggling, people pay for transportation, and are willing participants," he said. "But with trafficking, the key components are fraud, force and coercion. The people are lied to, sold the American dream, and it turns out to be the American nightmare. That's fraud. Force is used to physically or emotionally harm them. Coercion comes in when the trafficker holds something over their head, such as take away their documents, or take away their baby, promise to reveal what they have been doing, or threaten them saying, 'We will call ICE and have you deported.'"
"We want you to call ICE!" spokesman for ICE Nestor Yglesias wants victims to know.
"With U.S. runaways, the traffickers are looking for them at train stations, bus stations, waiting for them. Within 36-48 hours, a young runaway will be approached face to face. Traffickers use social media, the internet to chat and sound sympathetic, offering a young girl who is having problems with her parents, 'Can I help you?' They prey on our most vulnerable citizens, our children. The person being trafficked could be the person working on the farms, in the fields, cutting grass, the lady in the nail salon, or the person cleaning your hotel room. Labor trafficking is incredibly prevalent here. No one ethnicity, sex, or religion is immune from human trafficking," Pino said.
HARD TO PROVE
As prevalent as human trafficking is, Pino admits that human trafficking is also difficult to prove. "Then we use other weapons we have in our arsenal, such as VISA violations, money laundering, and the Mann Act, a federal law which prohibits the transportation of women across state lines for the purpose of prostitution or other illegal sexual acts."
Fernandez Rundle believes progress has been made in Miami-Dade. The infrastructure to combat human trafficking has been built. Laws have been improved. Protection for victims has been expanded. Through awareness, and the collaborative work being done here in Miami-Dade County, other communities have begun to take note.
"What we have built here has become a model for the entire country," said Fernandez Rundle. Other agencies from as far away as Texas, New York, Jacksonville and Boston have sent staff to Miami-Dade County to observe the model developed here to see what could be modified and used in their respective jurisdictions. Israel and other parts of the world have sent representatives, as there is a rise in the number of Ethiopian and Ukrainian girls being used by traffickers.
There are still gaps the coalition would like to see filled as it continues to take the fight to the traffickers. Sorely needed are coordinated behavioral and mental health services; primary care, dental/eye and specialty care; long-term stable housing; education, rescue; and of course, more funding.
One important change that must occur to combat human trafficking is the culture. "We will not be able to stop human trafficking until we change our culture and perceptions,” said Fernandez Rundle, referring to the culture of glamorizing pimps, drug dealers, gangsters and hustlers. To demonstrate her point, she plays excerpts from videos by rap artists Lupe Fiasco and Fetty Wap. In each video, the rappers were draped in gold chains, counting large sums of money, with gyrating girls draped all over them as they bragged about the money they made from their trap-houses, rooms where "johns" go to have sex with young women and men.
As society changes and technology changes, so too do the faces of traffickers and techniques they employ to coax and lure unsuspecting victims. Law enforcement is leading a crack down on websites like backpage.com, alleged to be a site that uses coded language to advertise the availability of sex for sale. More and more the victims of human trafficking are young boys and young men.
When it comes to human trafficking, "these crimes are happening in dark alleys," said Fernandez Rundle. "The victims are not going to come to us because of shame and fear. We need a million eyes and a million ears to look out for the signs of human trafficking. "If we are not thinking human trafficking, we are not going to see it!"