October 24, 2016

South Florida a focus of Obama human-trafficking initiative



Secretary of State John Kerry hosted a White House meeting Monday of a high-level task force set up by President Barack Obama in 2012 to combat forced labor and prostitution.

Federal law enforcement agencies have initiated more than 6,000 human-trafficking cases and secured at least 4,000 convictions since Obama took office in January 2009.

"While more work is required to tackle the root causes and consequences of human trafficking, the United States continues to be a leader in the global movement to end modern slavery," the White House said in a statement.

Part of the Obama initiative is focused on Miami and New York, two national trafficking hubs.

The U.S. Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services and Justice are collaborating to provide job and training services in those cities for victims of human trafficking.

More than 1,200 instances of human trafficking were reported in the Sunshine State through the Florida Abuse Line in fiscal year 2014-15.

South Florida is the third-most-active region for sex trafficking in the country, with minors often the victims, according to the Justice Department.

Before it was cancelled because of Hurricane Matthew, Attorney General Pam Bondi had scheduled the Florida Human Trafficking Summit for Oct. 10 in Orlando. Five-hundred law-enforcement officers, service providers, healthcare professionals, educators, legislators and community leaders had signed up to attend, along with trafficking victims.

Obama's task force gave a presidential anti-trafficking award to Students Opposing Slavery, a network of high school and college students who raise awareness about trafficking among youth. The University of Central Florida in Orlando has one of the most active chapters of the group.

"Leaders in our state are committed to making Florida a zero-tolerance state for human-trafficking," Bondi said.

In a recent case, the drug-overdose death of a 14-year-old girl in Orlando led police to break open a human-trafficking ring based there.

Jose Ignacio Santiago-Sotomayor, 22, and Avorice Jeno Holman, 19, were arrested and charged with first-degree murder, human trafficking of a child and procuring a minor for prostitution. Police said they and other members of the ring drugged girls in order to have sex with them.

Earlier this year, Gov. Rick Scott declared January the Human Trafficking Awareness Month and signed four bills into law that stiffened penalties for human traffickers, established protections for past victims, and promoted efforts to help people recognize warning signs.

"It is unfathomable that this evil occurs in our state, but by expanding services and passing important legislation this year, we are helping to save and heal the lives of our state's most vulnerable," Scott said.

In July, police busted a human-trafficking ring in Seminole County with more than 20 victims, arresting Christian Pena Fernandez and Rachel Gonzalez.

Detectives said that Pena Fernandez ran a sophisticated organization in which he recruited and harbored women to provide sex. He ran ads seeking women on backpage.com, they said.

The couple used motels and hotels across Central Florida in their operation, detectives said.

Photo credit: Getty Images


September 14, 2014

Regulatory neglect: 140 investigations into abuse at home for disabled = zero discipline

Paige Lunsford tombstoneFor five days and five nights, Paige Elizabeth Lunsford — a severely disabled teen — retched “like a waterfall,” could not eat and thrashed about in an “educational center” staffed with teachers, nurses and a doctor.

Paige was sick, and getting sicker. But caregivers did not send her to a hospital. Instead, they bound her wrists, ankles, biceps and waist with restraints to keep her from flailing.

Paige, nonverbal due to autism, could not ask for help. And none came.

Blond, pigtailed Paige, the child of Margate residents, died at the Carlton Palms Educational Center in July 2013, baking with fever, 10 days after she was sent there. A victim of medical neglect, according to the Department of Children & Families, she now rests beneath a small grave marker etched with musical notes and linked hearts.

An autopsy determined that the 14-year-old succumbed to dehydration, the result of a severe but treatable infection.

Her death spawned the 140th DCF neglect or abuse probe involving the Lake County home since 2001 — there have been eight more reports since then — and yet, the facility has never paid a fine and never been disciplined. Story by Carol Marbin Miller here.

Read more here: http://www.miamiherald.com/2014/09/13/4347015/bound-to-bed-a-girls-agonizng.html#storylink=cpy

April 02, 2014

Senate advances sweeping child welfare reforms; will money follow?

Innocents LostA key Senate committee approved a sweeping overhaul of Florida’s child welfare law Wednesday, the first step toward passage of a series of reforms designed to stanch the deaths of children at the hands of their parents or other caregivers.

The proposal, an amendment to SB 1666 approved by the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Health and Human Services, is the most significant revamp of the state’s child welfare system in at least a decade. It aims to increase the quality and quantity of child protection investigators and strengthen the ability of the state to remove a vulnerable child from an unsafe home after the parents have demonstrated a pattern of neglect or abuse.

The 142-page bill merges several different Senate bills and adopts language from a companion measure passed out of a House committee last week. It contains several recommendations from Innocents Lost, a Miami Herald series that detailed the deaths of 477 Florida children whose families had prior contact with the Florida Department of Children & Families.

“We have had some of the best and brightest minds working on this and we are troubled by the 477 innocent lives lost, as written by the Miami Herald,” said Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, who chairs the Senate Families and Elder Affairs Committee. “This is a tremendous movement from the past.” Story here.