By Jan Pudlow
A 16-year-old girl running away from an abusive home met a man at a payphone in Detroit who promised her a better life in South Florida.
If she’d be his girlfriend, he’d lavish her with jewelry and trips to the Bahamas. But he turned out to be a pimp with the street name D-Lo.
Holding her in a Marriott Hotel in Miami Beach, he ordered the girl to earn at least $500 a day through streetwalking.
If she didn’t come through, he’d beat her, stick a gun in her mouth, and threaten to kill her. Eventually, he sold her to another pimp.
On Ocean Drive, the girl propositioned an undercover Miami Beach police officer and was arrested. After she was identified as a juvenile victim of sex trafficking, she was not charged and was taken to a safe location. After a jury trial, D-Lo — aka Demond Osley — was convicted of sex trafficking of a minor and other charges, and sentenced to prison for 30 years.
That anecdote of a real victim of child trafficking is one of several sprinkled throughout the 276-page Florida Statewide Strategic Plan on Human Trafficking, a two-year study by the Florida State University Center for the Advancement of Human Rights, funded by The Florida Bar Foundation (www.cahr.fsu.edu).
Now, the Bar’s Legal Needs of Children Committee has formed a subcommittee on human trafficking — with the goal of taking action on many of the study’s recommendations and vetting and endorsing proposed legislation.
One of the main challenges is that human trafficking cases are complicated, and only a fraction of all trafficked children are properly identified.
The subcommittee’s co-chair, Bill Booth, at the Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County, said the issue first riveted his attention when his boss had a child trafficking case years ago.
“The child ended up in federal foster care, and that’s what started opening our eyes to it,” Booth said. “And we haven’t found one really since. We’ve had some suspicions, but nothing directly provable as human trafficking. But it’s going on out there. That’s what is so frustrating about the cases. They do hide in plain sight.”
FSU’s Wendi Adelson, who co-authored the statewide strategic plan, said: “I am thrilled that the subcommittee is taking seriously the problem of trafficked children in the state of Florida. This is a problem that will not stop without the dedicated effort of people everywhere, from the highest government officials, to law enforcement, to teachers, health officials, and good Samaritans.”
And, lawyers, too.
Alan Abramowitz, chair of the Legal Needs of Children Committee and executive director of the Statewide Guardian ad Litem Program, said he knows a lot of people are looking at the issue of child trafficking, including a Department of Children and Families work group, and this will be the third year of proposed legislation.
“I think it’s necessary that the Bar be engaged in this because the decisions and legislative proposals impact children’s legal rights,” Abramowitz said.
“We need to make sure children’s legal rights are protected, that we do the right thing and make sure they are not treated as criminals. If an older child is arrested for prostitution, they are victims. And we need to get them the treatment and support they need.”
During the subcommittee’s first teleconference on July 27, Abramowitz said a challenge is whether Florida is able to deliver proper services to victims of child trafficking.
“The case I’m familiar with, we had to go to Atlanta. If a child is already in foster care, my thought is that community-based care still has to meet those children’s needs as victims of trafficking.”
Runaways are a big concern, he said.
“We have to get better at identifying the issue and working with law enforcement,” he said.
“In Florida, a lot of advocates want to take it on. The Florida Bar has to be part of it, and the Legal Needs of Children Committee is a natural part of making sure whatever legislation happens supports the right things for children.”
The subcommittee took a look at last session’s CS/HB 145 and SB 718 — known as the Florida Safe Harbor Act — that died on May 7.
Now, Trudy Novicki, executive director of Kristi House, a child advocacy center in Miami for victims of sexual abuse, said she is optimistic about HB 99, filed August 18 by Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, husband of Kristi House board member Ethel Fresen.
“Simply put, the intent of the Safe Harbor statute is two-fold: to move children from criminal status to victim status, and to create long-term and short-term specialized housing,” said Novicki, a former prosecutor who admitted it was a learning curve for her to realize child prostitutes belong in dependency court, not charged with crimes in juvenile court.
“My board has studied the issue, and we’ve decided this is within our mission, because this is a population of sexually abused children. The majority of children involved in prostitution were sexually abused in their homes,” she said.The main obstacle to getting the legislation passed, Novicki said, was its fiscal impact.
HB 99, she said, is revenue neutral, reallocating funding in the dependency system for foster children. And it includes giving law enforcement the discretion to arrest and take the child into custody for protection, another obstacle the previous bills faced.
If HB 99 passes, she said, it is “meant to be a place where girls could come and receive services. We expect, if the model works the right way, that Miami-Dade police and the FBI will drop girls off at a shelter.”
Human Trafficking Subcommittee Co-Chair Mary Cagle, director of Children’s Legal Services at DCF, said DCF’s Office of Refugee Services has hired Tyson Elliott as statewide human trafficking coordinator, who is working on drafting legislation, along with the Department of Juvenile Justice and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, using the Safe Harbor legislation as a foundation.
“All of that is being thrown into something that everybody is vetting,” Cagle said. “And they asked us in Children’s Legal Services to take a look at it. So we’re doing it to provide some legal analysis, because the person working on it is a police officer, and he said he needed some support. He has some rebuttable presumptions.”
Abramowitz noted that in Florida, “We don’t lock up status offenders. We don’t lock up victims. And, in fact, last year they passed that law that DJJ won’t commit kids for misdemeanors. And prostitution is a misdemeanor, right?”
When a child ends up in court, Booth said, an “alleged family member” stands at his or her side.
“There is no way for the court or any person there to question to find out if this person is the real father or the real guardian for this child. And maybe check into whether this is a trafficked child,” Booth said. “I would think there needs to be a way to give the court more authority and more power to protect these kids that are right in front of them, when they might suspect a situation such as this.”
Abramowitz added: “I think the challenge is that if they get arrested and are taken to a juvenile assessment center, or wherever, to be scored out, they are not going to meet detention criteria, because it’s a misdemeanor. And what happens is DJJ has to release the child to a ‘responsible adult.’ Those are the words they use. And there is very little that excludes someone from being a responsible adult.”
The subcommittee had its second teleconference on August 24, and planned its third for September 13, after this News went to press. They plan to report their progress when the full Legal Needs of Children Committee meets at the Bar’s Midyear Meeting in Orlando, on September 22, from 1:00 to 5:30 p.m.
“To me, this is an issue that’s burning,” Booth said, noting a July 27 story in The Palm Beach Post with the headline: “New Homeland Security campaign’s goal: Stopping slavery.” The story described a new bilingual TV promotional spot airing in South Florida, sponsored by the Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection Division, that asks Floridians to keep an eye out for human trafficking victims, especially young foreign women forced into prostitution in the U.S. and others imported from abroad and forced into indentured servitude.
“It seems to be popping up all over the place. We hear stories all the time. Please, don’t hold back on whatever ideas you have,” Booth said. “This is exciting. I’m very glad you all are interested in doing this. It’s been a long time just sitting on my desk. I’m glad to start doing something. . . .It worries me that it’s going on out there, and we can’t find it as quickly as we’d like. I want to be able to help these kids quicker than we are.”