Authorities turning up heat, light on human traffickers

LaBELLE — The serious crime of human trafficking seems to be on a rise nationwide and also in South Florida. Whether due to increased public awareness of the problem, or the attention it’s drawing anew from authorities, Florida is No. 3 among the 50 states for the number of hotline calls about these human rights abuses going to the national reporting hotline, so local public officials are working to make even more citizens informed about it.

In fact, January was declared “Human Trafficking Awareness Month” by many cities and counties, including Hendry, due to a push by the Florida Department of Health and on the national level by the CDC. The Hendry County Sheriff’s Office has a four-officer team called its Criminal Interdiction Unit now concentrating on enforcement activity in this area since receiving a large grant to counterattack the traffickers (See story on Page 6).

At their Jan. 22 regular meeting, Hendry County commissioners learned much about what a thorn it is in the side of modern society to have this modern-day form of slavery in its midst.

Board Chairman Mitchell Wills welcomed local Health Department Director Joe Pepe during presentations to the commission, saying: “This is another subject, Dr. Pepe, that we appreciate you educating the public on. A lot of folks probably don’t think that’s relevant here, so this is going to open a lot of eyes, I’m sure.”

He went on to describe for them a phenomenon that he says calls for establishment of a “quilt of resources” and multiple outreach points where people who’re being victimized can go for help, in order to stop the cycle and deter the criminals who are perpetrating the often hidden abuses.

Dr. Pepe brought with him Theo Rodriguez, director of human services and strategic initiatives for the department, and gave an overview of their efforts. Dr. Pepe said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has “recognized human trafficking as a public health issue,” and explained it disproportionately affects people who have already been victimized by violence or adversity. Among the societal conditions giving rise to human trafficking he listed are gang violence, interpersonal violence, runaway homeless youth and unaccompanied minors. “But here’s where it really gets concerning for me, especially with a smaller community, and (because) we’ve experienced two hurricanes recently — persons displaced during natural disasters,” Dr. Pepe said.

He went on that there are two basic forms: “There’s sex trafficking and labor trafficking, where there’s recruitment, harboring and transportation provision; obtaining, patronizing or soliciting of a person for the purpose of commercial sex acts, or for the purposes of labor services; through the use of force, fraud, coercion, and for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude. So debt bondage is a form,” he explained.

“We’ve seen some cases recently where the individuals being trafficked were residents of the United States; there wasn’t an international smuggling component with the trafficking. That’s sometimes a misperception.”

As a matter of fact, Dr. Pepe said regarding cases reported recently through the National Human Trafficking Hotline: “If you look at the comparison between U.S. and foreign (-born subjects), they’re almost the same. So it’s almost a 50 percent mix between domestic citizens and foreign nationals that have been reporting in to the hotline.”

He said that of 5,147 calls to their call center, 367 cases were reported last year in this state. “We’ve seen some recent news articles of alleged trafficking rings, most recently in January in … Lehigh. So these cases are ongoing, and I stress ‘alleged,’ but we have heard of different moments where cases like these have made the news,” he said

So, since one of their priorities is improving trauma services and initiatives to help the community thrive, they’ve focused on this issue. The health department is conducting a lot of training for medical providers and many others, including nurses, teachers, law enforcement, even sanitation and postal workers, to be able to recognize the signs of human trafficking.

Dr. Pepe says a lot of times the victims are trafficked through recruitment, harboring, transporting, providing resources and “almost transferred like property.

“They (the traffickers) use force, fraud and coercion, and so the debt bondage component of it, the involuntary servitude component of it, that is really tough because folks are seeking better opportunities, but they’re unable to escape the continuous debt or whatever services are required as a function of being able to work in a certain place or live somewhere,” he explained.

Health department and other workers are being coached to fill in the blanks behind the numbers when they do intake procedures.

“(It’s) so that they’re able to code their encounters so we’re able to run more reports and get a greater level of detail. We need more data to fully understand where these cases are happening.

The other side, too, is to train our medical providers so that they are access points for resources and kind of break the cycle of trafficking that’s occurring.

“Because many times folks that are trafficked come in for medical care, but the providers are struggling with where to link those folks up to. And the persons trafficking them may also come to the medical exam with them, so the providers are being trained on how to identify evidence of trafficking so they can reach out and link to care, which is a pillar of public health,” Dr. Pepe continued.

He said the numbers locally particularly are not thought to be huge, but that is partly because of a lack of data and also because “folks won’t seek care in the same community they live in, for their own safety,” he said, stating that they have seen some Collier County residents who came to Hendry for help.

Commissioner Mike Swindle noted that the numbers are just for reported cases and that the illegal practices could be much more widespread.

Dr. Pepe said he wants to “stand up a panel, a group of community leaders that can make decisions on how to create a resilient and protective environment for our community.

“We would love more folks that are community leaders, faith-based leaders and other individuals (to) come together and put together a quilt of resources so that our community is not the most conducive environment toward victimization and trafficking. Then we’ll look at all the data, create a community dashboard for our data and put all that together in a strategic plan for how we’re going to move forward,” he finished. Commissioners urged him to bring back more information when he has it, and Dr. Pepe said he intended to do “some more data mining.”

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