Teen sex slaves: All too real in Florida
Scott Maxwell, TAKING NAMES
9:32 p.m. EST, September 25, 2012
If I told you there was a place where 16-year-old girls are forced to perform sex acts on men old enough to be their grandfather, you'd be disgusted.
And if I told you some of these sexual horror stories start when girls are as young as 12, your stomach probably would turn.
Well, turn it should. Because that place is right here in Florida.
It's as close as International Drive and along the I-4 corridor.
It's called human trafficking. And it's a grotesque practice that state officials say is on the rise.
Need proof? Well, consider that, right now, the state is housing and protecting about 100 girls who were victims. And that represents just a fraction of those actually involved.
Nationally, experts say Florida ranks third in human-trafficking cases.
They are stories like the one the Sentinel carried just two weeks ago from our own backyard: "Palm Bay man forced 14-year-old runaway into prostitution, cops say."
Fourteen-year-old girls are supposed to be planning parties, reading teen magazines and gossiping with their friends — not being pressured into sex by men who threaten to kill them if they don't.
"People just don't think it's happening here — but it is," said state Rep. Erik Fresen, a South Florida Republican who has led the fight to combat this plague. "When I really started looking at this issue and the data, I was A) thrown back, B) incredibly saddened and C) wanted to know what I needed to do to help."
What the Legislature did was pass Fresen's Safe Harbor Act — which was a good first step. (More on that in a moment.) And this week, officials such as Attorney General Pam Bondi are raising awareness through a summit on human trafficking.
So why don't you already know more about this problem?
Well, for one reason, people don't want to think about it. It's hard to comprehend.
I also believe the phrase itself — "human trafficking" — is deceivingly sterile. It's simply doesn't connect with most of us.
I'm reminded of the scene from "Jaws" when the misguided mayor of Amity Island explains to Chief Brody the power of words, saying: "You yell, 'barracuda,' everyone says, 'Huh?' You yell, 'shark,' we've got a panic on our hands."
That's why we need to call this epidemic what it is: "Sex slavery."
Human trafficking also involves indentured servants, often immigrants who are forced to work for nothing or next-to-nothing. But the biggest part of the state's focus right now is sex slavery.
They are runaways, drug addicts and victims of abuse who are tricked into a nightmarish life by depraved predators.
But some of the girls also come from families like yours.
At a briefing I attended a few months ago, state agents talked of a local executive whose daughter was sneaking out of her bedroom at night to prostitute herself. The reason: A group of her male schoolmates had raped her, videotaped the incident and threatened to release the video if she didn't do as they said. Her parents had no idea.
A key part of Fresen's Safe Harbor Act is that it treats these girls as the victims they are, rather than the criminals.
It also bolsters penalties for the deviant dirtbags who abuse the girls.
The bill also calls for more safe places for rescued girls to stay — one of the greatest needs.
Unfortunately, the Legislature didn't include any funding for those safe houses. House analysts said $8 million might be needed. The Legislature designated nothing.
Fresen said he will work to fix that next session. And on Tuesday, DCF Secretary David Wilkins said he was looking for creative solutions.
Nonprofits also need to be in the mix.
We must all step up — and open our eyes to the horrors no one wants to see.
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