TAMPA — Verified cases of Florida children forced into the sex trade rose by more than a third from 2015 to 2016, a new state study has found.
Florida law enforcement agencies reported 356 cases where children were the victims of commercial sexual exploitation, including 52 in the Tampa Bay region.
The majority of victims were white, female, and between 14 and 17 years of age.
The report by Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability questions whether state agencies are doing enough to identify and help victims. Florida faces a severe shortage of safe houses and other sites offering specialized counseling and care for child victims, it states.
But the Florida Department of Children and Families says the report shows the state is finding more victims and punishing traffickers, a result of increased awareness of the abuse.
“Three years ago there wasn’t even a real good understanding of what human trafficking was and the scale and scope of it,” said DCF Secretary Mike Carroll at a meeting Thursday. “It has created challenges for us, for sure, to make sure the funding and resources follow the victims. We continue to struggle with that.”
Local agencies that work with victims agree there is more awareness of trafficking. A 2016 law that halted child prostitution arrests has also made it easier for children to seek help, said Brent Woody, executive director and lead counsel with the Justice Restoration Center, which does pro-bono work for victims of trafficking.
Nonetheless, there is concern that the number of verified cases does not reflect the full extent of the problem.
“The public is more aware so there may be more calls that go into the hotline,” said Woody. But he suspects abuse is still rising. “Intuitively, a lot of us in the advocacy field feel like it is going up.”
In many cases, children are trafficked by pimps, boyfriends or other adults. For example, young girls were lured to Tampa through modeling ads posted on Craigslist, a 2015 Tampa Police Department investigation found. Once they arrived, girls were photographed and then coerced into working as prostitutes in hotel rooms. The same pimp also enticed victims by handing out flyers at University Mall, the investigation found.
Agencies also consider homeless or runaway children who offer themselves for sex as victims of trafficking, a practice known as “survivor sex,” said Giselle Rodriguez of the Florida Coalition against Human Trafficking.
“These cases are not being investigated because our law enforcement is more focused on organized aspects of child sex trafficking,” Rodriguez said.
Victims of child trafficking face an array of issues including post traumatic stress disorder, said Edie Rhea, a former victim who went on to found Healing Root Ministry in Tampa, a non-profit that works to end trafficking.
The teens also struggle to finish school. The average cost for counseling and other needed treatment is about $50,000 per year, she said.
“It takes intensive therapy,” she said.
But the state is still struggling to provide those services, the report states, especially safe house beds.
For the 356 cases identified in 2016, Florida had just 28 beds for girls and none for boys, who can also be exploited.
Worse, some of the agencies that provide safe beds refuse to take some victims — including pregnant or parenting girls, children with mental health issues not controlled by medication, and those with substance abuse problems.
The result is that many victims end up staying at group foster homes.
“It’s a huge problem,” Rhea said. “I don’t think the state realized how many victims there were and are.”
Carroll, the DCF secretary, said more accommodations will come online in the coming year.
The report questions the accuracy of the screening process used by DCF to identify children who may be victims.
That is a concern because many children do not disclose the abuse. Social workers watch for clues: an older boyfriend, certain tattoos or a pattern of running away.
Nearly two-thirds of victims in 2016 were outside of the foster care system and the state has little data on whether they are getting the help they need, the report found.
A law passed this year now means either DCF of local sheriff’s offices must track counseling and other services provided.
Child welfare agencies spent about $4.1 million helping victims of sexual trafficking in the 2016 fiscal year. Carroll said DCF and its partners now have more expertise and expect better results this year.
“Yeah, we have a lot of work to do,” he said, “but we have come a long way.”
Contact Christopher O’Donnell at email@example.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.