BY KATHERINE FERNANDEZ RUNDLE
Human trafficking crimes occur on the shadowy edges of daily existence. Effectively exposing this problem, allowing knowledge and awareness to shine a bright light on these very dark crimes are important early steps in our efforts to end human trafficking.
International Human Trafficking Awareness Day was memorialized on Jan. 11, 2012. It is a sad reality that we even need to have such a day, but the numbers speak volumes about the dimensions of this problem: Around the world, as many as 2.5 million people are forced into the unpaid labor and sex trades. Florida is often ranked as either the second or third state in the number of victims of human trafficking.
As state attorney, I knew we needed to start a process of identifying problems while proposing solutions. Clearly the first step was to bring together a cross-section of community leaders, police, prosecutors and service providers. By identifying the misconceptions that inhibit our efforts to attack human trafficking crimes, we start the process of helping victims.
To accomplish this, I organized a community forum on human trafficking titled, “The Faces of Human Trafficking: Myths and Realities” on Jan. 9. After all, knowledge is the sharpest tool in the fight against human trafficking.
One of the important myths to be dispelled is a simplistic view of the victims of human trafficking. Many human rights organizations have focused largely on the trafficking of foreign nationals. Often these are people who are abducted or tricked into applying for foreign jobs only to be sold into brothels. Another portrait relates to issues of debt bondage, where men and women illegally smuggled into the United States are told they must work under modern day slavery-like conditions to pay off their debt.
However, the reality of the sex trafficking cases presented to my prosecutors is much more complex. They do not involve exploited foreign nationals, but women and children from our own community. They were discovered in the course of unrelated criminal investigations rather than coming from a human trafficking tip, task force operation, or prostitution cases. Two thirds of them are 18 or older.
These local victims have had unique psychological needs. They often suffer from trauma bonding, also commonly referred to as the Stockholm syndrome or the Patty Hearst syndrome. The victims often do not perceive their pimps as exploiters but as boyfriends and protectors. Of course, this perception complicates their interactions with law enforcement as well as their reintegration back into our community.
Human trafficking is often an under-reported and misidentified crime. To better identify its victims, I have created a Human Trafficking Task Force composed of experienced prosecutors with a wide spectrum of specializations. Our task force members are charged with reviewing a wide range of arrest affidavits for the identification of trafficking victims. We also recently initiated a review of juvenile arrests and pick-up orders. Our task force members are available to work with state and local task forces, our federal partners and our local service providers. Our Jan. 9 community forum on human trafficking was the first of what I hope will be many successful dialogues regarding this important issue of human trafficking in the future.
Most recently, there are legislative initiatives that I have been advocating at the local, state and national levels. These initiatives will make it easier for state prosecutors to arrest and convict the pimps and sex traffickers who prey upon these victims. Here in Florida, Senate Bill 1880, sponsored by Sen. Anitere Flores and House Bill 7049 sponsored by Rep. William Snyder contain the necessary language that I have advocated.
Fighting human trafficking is not just the job of law enforcement and prosecutors. It is also the job of our entire community. The Florida Safe Harbor Act, which we supported, is a step in the right direction for victims who are minors. We need everyone to assist us in developing effective treatment programs and housing for all victims. Without their testimony, evil people will continue to do evil things.
Victims need adequate services to support them as witnesses in our criminal justice system so we can successfully prosecute the predators who manipulate and sell them on our streets. Together, we can break the mental and emotional chains that bind them to some very cruel masters.
As caring and concerned citizens, please make it your job to report, to assist and to testify if needed. With your help and your cooperation we can be successful in putting individuals seeking to line their wallets through sexual exploitation in prison where they belong.
Katherine Fernandez Rundle is state attorney for Miami-Dade County.