Human trafficking is modern-day slavery that involves forcing, defrauding or coercing victims into sexual exploitation, according to the U.S. Department of State. This pervasive system deprives victims of their innate rights as human beings and it is happening here at home.
Conversation around human trafficking in Palm Beach County is slowly but surely becoming more prevalent. Nonprofit and service providers in the area are working diligently to partner with individuals caught in the vicious cycle of trafficking.
According to the Human Trafficking Hotline, Florida ranks third in the nation for incidents of human trafficking. Palm Beach County ranks third in Florida counties for suspected cases of human trafficking, which is measured by the number of calls to the national hotline.
Local organizations, such as the Human Trafficking Coalition of the Palm Beaches, are fighting for the freedom of trafficked individuals. Laura Cusack, president of HTCPB, spends most of her day educating the local community on how to recognize the signs of trafficking in order to better report it and, hopefully, prevent it.
The county’s high call volume to the Human Trafficking Hotline suggests that the more people educated on who to call, the higher the call volumes are. But, simultaneously, more calls.
“A lot of calls look bad because it is a lot of trafficking, but also it can look good because people are actually reporting,” Cusack said.
According to local nonprofits, such as HTCPB, there are several reasons for the high volume of calls that originate from the county. Palm Beach County is well-known for its tourism appeal. Cusack pointed out that industries such as agriculture and hospitality contribute to the transitive area because of their appeal to seasonal workers.
In addition to sex trafficking, Palm Beach County is host to labor trafficking of seasonal workers coming to town on work visas. Any seasonal employees at places such as country clubs, restaurants and hotels are vulnerable to exploitation.
Becky Dymond, executive director of Lighthouse Palm Beach County, added that people who are transient with no established community of support are more susceptible to human
trafficking. With Palm Beach County having “a population that is not homogenous,” it can be difficult to recognize someone in commercial sexual activity.
“We have a melting pot of so many different cultures and nationalities that no one is out of place,” Dymond said.
Lighthouse PBC’s ultimate mission is to open a safe house for local women. Dymond said she believes that building relationships through a safe house community is what will protect women from the trafficking cycle.
Traffickers could be running five women at a time, said Dymond. In the trafficking dynamic, many times, the women manage the women, and they do so with ruthless tactics. If a trafficker gets caught, he can condemn one of his victims by placing the blame on her. It works as its own functioning community.
“Everybody wants a community,” Dymond added, “even if we think this is an odd one.”
Lighthouse PBC’s efforts are most effective with women in their mid-to-upper 30s. These are women who have been in the system for so long that they desperately want out. Traffickers often provide food, clothing and housing, while limiting the options of victims who are seeking a way out. It is difficult for these victims to pursue change over having their needs met.
“My job is to create a situation that entices someone to change,” she stated.
Jamie Bond, the director of advancement at Place of Hope, struck a passion for human trafficking victims 12 years ago. Place of Hope started in 2001 by serving children in the Palm Beach County foster-care system who had been neglected or abused. Around that time, they noticed some of these children were showing signs of sexual exploitation, prompting a shift in their focus to sex trafficking victims.
Place of Hope uses a holistic approach in serving males, females, adults and minors coming out of human trafficking. According to Bond, as culture shifts, primarily through social media, there is more of an awareness and willingness to talk about this uncomfortable topic.
“It has not really been until the last 10 years or so that people have really been open to discussing that human trafficking really happens in the United States and that it happens here in Florida,” Bond said.
Despite the stigmas, human trafficking does not only happen in obscure areas. And, Bond said, trafficking often takes place in plain sight. Some of the children seeking help from organizations such as Place of Hope grew up with parents who trafficked them to help support various addictions or meet financial obligations. What may seem like normal scenarios often have a darker contraposition.
“People don’t want to admit a lot of times that these things are happening in our community as a result of our being uneducated, naive or honestly just wanting to turn a blind eye,” Bond added.
Savannah Parvu, a central Florida resident and sex trafficking survivor said her journey began when she started facing sexual abuse around the age of 5. Through family addictions and foster-care horrors, she sought to overcome the trauma of her past in trafficking.
“It’s a long process, but there is hope after being trafficked,” Parvu said.
Creating awareness for the National Hotline is one of the key factors to catching traffickers in the act. Once people know the number to call, if they see something, they can say something. Empowering communities to take a proactive stance against human trafficking, through aggressive tactics such as education and networking, affords victims a greater chance of recovering.
If you are suspicious of a potential trafficking incident you can report it by calling the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1(888) 373-7888.
By McKay Campbell