Monday, February 17, 2014

No one should be a victim

Human trafficking: Don’t be a victim even if you are in the country illegally   

Law enforcement officers answer questions from PACE students about the subject of human trafficking. (Patty Brant/Immokalee Bulletin)
The PACE girls learn many of life’s lessons at their unique school. Recently they had a close up conversation with some of the adults tasked with investigating cases of human trafficking.

It was an interested group of young ladies who listened attentively as members of law enforcement including Homeland Security and the Collier County Sheriff’s Office.

The elite group of speakers spoke from years of experience in investigating a crime that strikes at the heart some of the most vulnerable of victims.

Once a young girl has been trapped into a life she never imagined, the speakers explained that they often become entrenched because they may experience “traumatic bonding,” in which a victim who is cut off from their family and friends actually becomes attached to their captor.

People may even be held captive in plain sight. Some of the identifying characteristics of a trafficking victim include: a total focus on their captor; becoming fearful; fearing for their families and having unmet medical needs.

In the US victims of human trafficking have rights, under the Victims Protection Act, even if they are illegally in the country.

However, for a trafficker to be prosecuted under ICE investigation, the foreign victim needs to be in the States for about a year while the case is ongoing. They are also allowed to stay here legally and can apply for a T visa (for victims of a severe form of human trafficking) for up to four years before seeking citizenship if they choose.

Victims of human trafficking may also take advantage of available social programs.

The speakers demonstrated how easy modern technology makes it for traffickers to find victims using technology like smart phones - standard equipment for so many teenagers. Taking advantage of social media applications like Facebook can be used to find easy prey, especially if you have “friends” online that you really don’t know.

A big potential danger: Young people often post their innermost thoughts and feelings when they’re going through a bad time. They can easily chat with total strangers who misrepresent themselves.

Officers’ advice: Never talk to someone you don’t know or make an appointment to meet them.

They underscored their advice with real life stories of South Florida teens who have been victimized by predators.

One young woman, identified only as Marie, was given by her mother to her grandmother to raise. The girl came to the US when she was four from Haiti.

Her grandmother’s husband molested Marie. Nobody believed what she said had happened so it continued. At seven she was raped by another man and ran way to the streets. She became a habitual runaway and was pregnant with her fifth child - some were adopted or lost and one she gave to her grandmother.

Marie ended up with female pimps who “befriended” her. At 12 she was put to work in an escort service for several years.

Finally, at 15, she was threatened with photos taken of her in a hotel room in Fort Myers and she went to the police.

In the process, Marie became a ward of the state and even attended PACE in Fort Myers for a time. Now, at 20 she, is a C.N.A. and hopes to become a nurse.

The agent from Homeland Security’s career includes working with US Customs as well - 13 years of investigating crimes against children and exploitation.

The government’s internet investigations include terrorism, drugs, child exploitation and treat the internet as a virtual border.

Most of their work takes place after the fact, but the presentation for PACE was proactive - a chance to provide vital information to prospective victims in advance.

The agent noted that the world has changed. Kids are still the same - only now there are so many ways to communicate - texting, tweeting, blogging - and these forms are open for anyone to see photos and messages, instantly on the internet. That translates into opportunities to meet anyone and form a relationship online,

Young people are prime targets for cyber bullying, exposure to improper material and online predators. Add the temptation for kids to reveal too much personal information and it’s a volatile mix.

Now consider that 95 percent of all US teens age 12-17 are online.

Another local case involved two boys, ages 14 and 17, Skyping with a girl they didn’t know but thought was 16. They met her online, and she supposedly put a video of herself up. The boys were told that the sound was out of order. “She” got the boys to do things they wouldn’t normally do. It turned out it wasn’t a young girl but a grown man who recorded the session and posted it online, getting some 20,000 downloads of the boys. This man had done this to 300 other boys - and there is no way to get the video off line.

The PACE students were provided with four rules for online activity: think before you post; respect others on line; be careful meeting someone on line; and protect your information online.

Another word of caution: predators usually use the “boyfriend approach” and introduce their intentions to the victim slowly.

A member of the Zonta International Club of Naples who works for McAfee provided her input as well. Executive Director Marianne Kearns said PACE partners with Zonta, which does fundraisers for PACE and offers scholarships for girls. It also supports shelters for survivors of domestic violence and other women’s issues.

Although defense against human trafficking is not taught in its curriculum, Ms. Kearns said information on domestic violence is.

Good to know:
- If you don’t know someone on your social media list, you can “unfriend” them;
- A perpetrator will threaten a target’s family, causing the victim to withdraw from family and friends, making you dependent on them
- Juveniles not old enough to make decision

- Indicators of a trafficking victim:
They are fearful,
They try to stay “under the radar”
They don’t make eye contact
They zone in on a one-way cell phone
They may have bruises and signs of assault
The may have unique tattoos, including a bar code
They may have signs of malnutrition
Victims have been known to be padlocked inside a house, etc.
Sometimes there are no signs

Some victims don’t even realize they are being trafficked because they are paid, but end up “owing” their captors for “services” they cannot repay so are forced to continue working for them.

Things to remember:
- Underage sex is a crime.
- Predators troll for victims on FB and other social media - don’t deal with anyone you don’t know
- Don’t offer personal information or situations on line - predators are just looking for vulnerabilities to exploit.
- If you suspect that someone is a victim of human trafficking, you are required to report it to law enforcement. There are many ways to do so anonymously.

The agents advise parents to take charge of what’s on your computer, monitor it, understand the apps and sites your kids are using.

If you are a victim of human trafficking or believe you know someone who is, there are several ways to report it. Call 1-866-DHS-2ICE or go to You can use only screen name to report.

You can always call the Collier County Sheriff’s Office.

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