Sex Trafficking in Southwest Florida
It’s modern-day slavery; Florida is the third most-offending state in the nation for it; and going into summer (when children have more time on their hands), it’s something parents need to be aware of. “It” is human or sex trafficking—organized criminal activity in which human beings are treated as possessions, controlled and exploited.
A majority of those exploited are juveniles and trafficking is happening in Southwest Florida. Local law enforcement, prosecutors, medical officials and advocacy groups are collaborating to combat the problem, and asking parents and the public to join the ranks.
Lest you think human trafficking, known as HT, occurs only in massage parlors (as seen in the news) or with dis- advantaged laborers crossing the border, think again. “A lot of teenage girls we see involved don’t even realize the guy they are talking to is a trafficker,” says Sgt. Wade Williams, head of the Collier County Sheriff’s Office Special Crimes Bureau- Exploitation Section.
Many girls who fall victim to trafficking were abused or neglected as children. For others, the issues aren’t as obvious but a similar blueprint exists of being vulnerable, having troubles at home, and meeting someone online to share their problems with—who then capitalizes on them. Williams adds: “They use very clever tactics. They talk about vulnerabilities and allow kids to break rules, like have a drink or view pornography. If the child tells on their new friend, they will also be telling on themselves.” So they remain quiet and the exploitation intensifies.
And parents of boys, take note: They can also be targeted.
Christy Ivie is president and founder of Christy’s Cause, a Southwest Florida-based nonprofit organization dedicated to eradicating child sex trafficking through education, awareness, restoration and justice initiatives. The stories she tells of local HT cases are shocking to many people.
Take, for instance, the 17-year-old Lee County girl working at a fast food restaurant who asked her boss for additional shifts to make money. Ivie says, “Her boss, a woman she trusted to take care of her, introduced her to a man who raped her and forced her into a life of sex work.”
Most trafficking victims don’t come forward out of fear. One of Ivie’s goals is to educate the public, medical community and law enforcement on how to recognize signs of trafficking victims, and action they can take to potentially save victims.
Nurses and other health professionals are on the front lines, including Jennifer Wolff, a Lee Memorial Hospital ER nurse, and board member of Christy’s Cause. “In 2015, shortly after joining Christy’s board, I sat in a mandatory training at the hospital,” she says. “They taught me the red flags of trafficking but if I’m in a room with a patient, I still have no idea what to do next. I felt a burden on my heart. If I have those questions, I’m sure my colleagues do, too.”
Wolff says Lee Health was ahead of the curve, having an HT policy since 2015—but it needed some fine-tuning. She was instrumental in creating a detailed protocol for health care professionals who suspect a patient is being trafficked, so they know how to take action.
It worked in the case of a 16-year-old girl who arrived at the hospital in Fort Myers at 3 a.m. Her complaints were vague; when parents were called for authorization to treat, it was discovered they lived out of town and wouldn’t come get her. When ready to be discharged, she didn’t know the name of the “friend” picking her up. Neither did that person know the girl’s name, referring to her by a nickname.
Red flags mounting, her care team called law enforcement, which uncovered the girl was involved in an open trafficking case in Miami. Ivie says, “What’s even more shocking is that her trafficker alleged to have had at least 200 girls working for him, some of whom were allegedly attending Cape Coral High School.”
Traffickers often lure victims through “grooming.” Perpetrators may feign romantic interest in children or teens, compliment them, buy gifts, take them out, and isolate them from friends and family. “At some point the relationship will turn violent and typically there is some kind of blackmail involved—a video made without their knowledge showing them in a compromising position or a threat to harm family members; something the perpetrator is holding over the victim,” says Ivie.
TALK TO YOUR CHILDREN
“People fall for new frauds every day,” Williams notes. “If you have a conversation with your kids and they know about these tactics, the less likely they are to fall victim to them.” Ivie adds, “Teach children the proper names for body parts.
If they use those terms, it’s an indication to would-be offenders they’ve likely been educated about ‘good touch— bad touch,’ as well.”
“Good touch—bad touch” conversations don’t have to be about sexuality. An example is that no one should touch your children in an area that their bathing suit covers. In turn, they shouldn’t touch anyone else in those areas.
Conversations about internet safety are of extreme importance. While it might seem obvious to adults, make sure children know to never give out personal info, including birthdays and addresses. A common way children are contacted and exploited is through cellphone apps and social media sites offering private chat features. “Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat together account for most of our cases,” says Williams.
He says to also be wary of TikTok, Whisper and even online game sites, especially those offering role-playing scenarios. “Kids advertise their vulnerabilities and problems on there. Predators are also there, saying, ‘Hey, come over here,’” Williams notes.
As more apps and social media sites come online, the bigger the technology gap grows between parents and children. Williams warns: “Parents aren’t paying attention, they’re not aware, they don’t have the skills—or frankly, sometimes the will- power—to monitor kids’ activity online. It’s confusing, they’re busy, it can be over- whelming, but it’s imperative.”
At the very least, he advises putting parental monitoring on devices, restricting access to inappropriate content. Find them under “Screen Time” in the settings of Apple devices. For Android users, look for “Family Link.” Parents can also download apps restricting access to sites with content such as pornography, can monitor children’s activities and set other screen limits.
Require computer time to be in common areas, not behind a locked door in the bedroom. Above all, teach children to “listen to their gut” when it comes to strangers and any promises or propositions that seem too good to be true. “If it feels wrong, it probably is,” says Ivie.
KNOW THE RED FLAGS
“If your child, or their friends, are running away and staying with boys, that’s a red ﬂag. They have no resources to take care of themselves and could be an indication that they are being victim- ized,” says Francine Donnorummo. She prosecutes oﬀenders as chief of the 20th Judicial Circuit Court States Attorney’s Oﬀice Special Victims Unit, and is on the board of Christy’s Cause.
She advises teachers, if one of their students “gets all dolled up and leaves in the middle of school, that’s another sign.” Donnorummo recalls a case in which a teenager without a license started driving a friend’s car to get her nails done. “She didn’t have a job and wasn’t going to school—that’s another red ﬂag for human traﬀicking.”
“If something strikes you as odd, call the National Human Traﬀicking Hotline at 888-373-7888, or call 911 and let them investigate,” Ivie says. One way she categorizes “odd” is an apparent girlfriend/boyfriend relationship in which the man appears a lot older, is controlling, speaking for the girl, and/or controlling her personal identiﬁcation, such as driver’s license.
In addition to public awareness, Christy’s Cause continues to expand its professional educational arm, known as “We Care.” Partnering with Lee Health, it provided free continuing ed on human traﬀicking to more than 400 registered nurses in 2019. Wolﬀ says the training has increased the number of HT victims the health care system has been able to identify and rescue.
Ivie does the same for law enforcement. Partnering with the National Center for Missing Children, her organization provides HT training typically given to police in specialty units only, to oﬀicers who are patrolling the streets on a daily basis.
Not only are sex crimes the most underreported crime, Donnorummo says less than 1 percent of sex traﬀicking victims are ever identiﬁed. That’s one reason why she’s excited about the massive data project Christy’s Cause is spearheading—called HT Counts. “There is nothing like this being done anywhere else in the state,” she says.
The data gathered would provide insight into HT patterns and trends, as well as the needs of victims who require protection, housing, social services, drug treatment and more. “We have to combat this as a community, it can’t just be prosecutors and law enforcement,” Donnorummo explains. “We have seen a light shown upon the ills of human trafﬁcking and made people aware of the problem. The public still has a long way to go but we are getting there.”
COMBATING THE PROBLEM
These websites oﬀer info about human traﬀicking, including statistics, resources and help lines.
Christy’s Cause works to eradicate child sex traﬀicking through education, awareness and justice initiatives. Christy Ivie is founder and president; Angi Jeﬀcoat, vice president; Monette Everett, treasurer; Brooke Lawrence, secretary; Jennifer Wolﬀ and Vibeke Flornes are board members. Christy’s Cause Advisory Council members are Sam Galloway III, Wayne Smith, Jeﬀ Cecil, Francine Donnorummo, Lt. Dan Cote, Jason Perry and Sgt. Wade Williams.
Awareness Partnerships and ARTREACH
Fort Myers-based Human Traﬀicking Awareness Partnerships conducts ARTREACH programs with area groups to spread awareness and give children the tools they need to describe their understanding of the dangers of traﬀicking. HTAP exhibits the paintings throughout the community so others can learn from them, too.
National Human Traﬀicking Hotline
U.S. Department of State
Gina Birch is a broadcaster, journalist and longtime TOTI Media contributor.