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Council aims to fight human trafficking

Human trafficking is a crime that reaches a broad spectrum of victims -- teenage runaways, the homeless, undocumented workers and even "kids who hang out at the mall every day,"  Mike Carroll, interim secretary of the Florida Department of Children and Families said Monday at the first meeting of the Statewide Council on Human Trafficking.

Many victims are also foster care kids who are under state care or have aged out of the state system and have no where to go, Carroll, the council's vice chair, said.

Florida has been ranked third in the number of calls received by the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, which estimates there are 27 million people enslaved worldwide.

"Four years ago, no one wanted to believe this existed," said Attorney General Pam Bondi, who has reached out to truckers, emergency medical workers, business owners, law enforcement and recently Mexican authorities to fight human trafficking. "It has to be stopped."

Now, Bondi, is also counting on a new panel with law enforcement, health care officials, educators, advocates and experts to fight the crime. The 15-member trafficking council, which Bondi chairs, was created during the 2014 legislative session to tackle specific goals in the human trafficking realm, including recommending programs and services to help victims; certifying safe houses and safe foster care homes; recommending ways to better apprehend and prosecute traffickers; and organizing a statewide summit.

Terry Coonan, a council member and executive director of the Florida State University Center for the Advancement of Human Rights, said he was encouraged by the qualifications of the group. "There's such high-level buy-in on this issue," Coonan said. "These are very committed members. We don't have to do a course in human trafficking 101. It's my hope they'll really take Florida to the next level."

Providing more victim services is essential, he said. "Because of the limitations on resources we haven't been able to provide the optimal kind of care for both foreign nationals and U.S. citizens." 

Providing specialists who are on call 24/7 has made a big difference in reaching these vulnerable victims, said Susan Dechovitz, who runs the human and sex trafficking unit for the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office. Dechovitz filled in for State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle at the council's first meeting.

"These specialists will run out and meet these girls" at any time, Dechovitz said. "Because of how they've been tortured, they'll run, they'll leave, they'll panic."

She noted the importance of developing other forms of evidence, such as cell phone use, if a victim can't testify. Miami Dade prosecutors have filed more than 240 criminal cases against traffickers with 100 pending cases at any time, Dechovitz said.

"Continued raising of awareness of the problem is the first step toward eliminating this modern sexual slavery," Rundle wrote in an email. (She had notified Bondi that she wouldn't be able to attend the first council meeting because of a family vacation at the time the date was announced.) "This awareness must not just be within the law enforcement and criminal justice communities but throughout Florida. Statewide, we need to make the danger signs and danger signals of human trafficking activity as easily and immediately recognized as the warning signal of an approaching train."

While Florida has one of the strongest human trafficking laws in the country, "there are gaps," Coonan said.

Under federal law, human trafficking can be punished by life in prison. In Florida, the crime is a first-degree felony, punishable by up to 30 years. But traffickers need to be hit in their wallets, Coonan said, with victims having the right to sue for punitive damages.

While human trafficking is taught in academies, "it's voluntary for law enforcement already on the streets. We need mandated training," Coonan said. "And we need it statewide."

Other council members are State Attorney General Dr. John ArmstrongElizabeth Dudek, secretary of the Agency for Health Care Administration; Gerald Bailey, executive director of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement; Christina Daly, Florida Department of Juvenile Justice Interim Secretary; Education Commissioner Pam Stewart; Martin County Sheriff William SnyderDottiGroover-Skipper, chairman of the Community Campaign Against Human Trafficking; Sen. Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring; Rep. Jeanette Nunez, R-Miami: Lee Lowry, former president of The Junior League of Tampa; and Springfield Police Chief Philip Thorne