Legislation proposes task force to reduce runaways, child sex trafficking in Florida’s foster system

A proposed task force would review the state’s foster care system to reduce the number of children who run away, a situation that often places them at risk of being trafficked for sex.

The new group was proposed in companion bills filed in the state House and Senate this week by Democrats Sen. Darryl Rouson of Tampa and Rep. Patricia Williams of Pompano Beach.

The new group would be charged with reviewing policies to reduce the number of foster kids that run away from foster care facilities and determine why they’re leaving in the first place.

“The purpose of the task force is to identify and counter the root causes of why children go missing while in out-of-home care,” the bill reads. The task force would also be charged with “assessing the relationship between children who go missing from out-of-home care and the risk of such children becoming victims of human trafficking.”

Williams said she hopes that the task force will shed light on the issue and make sure that kids in the state’s care are safe.

“I’m hoping that this will be an eye-opener to not just the readers of your paper, but also the people that can actually make things happen to lock up some of these loose ends that we have in the system itself,” Williams said. Rouson could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

The Florida foster care system has unintentionally created a pipeline from state-managed care to sex traffickers. A Sun Sentinel investigation late last year found that foster kids are at substantial risk of being sold for sex, and that group care makes the matter worse. Runaway episodes are common, leaving foster kids especially susceptible to sex traffickers.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Children and Families told the Sun Sentinel in November that most runaways are recovered. Department policy says law enforcement must be called immediately if a child who is a known trafficking victim runs away. But actual attempts to locate the child are minimal: once a week at first, then reducing to once a month. And many foster teens are trafficked for sex during those runaway episodes, the Sun Sentinel reported.

The proposed legislation would require DCF to produce monthly reports for the task force through October 2024, the deadline for the task force to compile its findings for the governor and legislative leadership. The group would automatically sunset at the end of June 2025.

The task force would also be responsible for reviewing policies to coordinate the response to runaways across agencies. Williams expressed concern that agencies aren’t syncing up their efforts to locate missing children, creating gaps in their response.

“The right hand don’t know what the left hand is doing,” she said. “We all need to be able to work together and make a safe place for our children.”

The task force would have 13 members in total, including a representative from the Statewide Council on Human Trafficking, who would be appointed by the state attorney general. Other proposed members include representatives from community-based care agencies, such as Childnet; a representative from a group home; a licensed foster care parent; and a young adult who has aged out of the foster care system.

But DCF is conspicuously missing from that membership list. While their subcontractors would get a seat, the agency wouldn’t have any representative on the task force under the current language of the bill. When asked about the omission, Williams said that the proposed bill would be amended to include the agency. A DCF spokesperson could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

The bill is almost identical to one filed last year by Williams, which died in committee when the House ran up against the end of the legislative session. Rouson filed a companion bill in the Senate last year as well, which also failed to get through before the legislature retired for the year.

The task force bills aren’t the only anti-trafficking measures that have surfaced recently. Sen. Rosalind Osgood, a Democrat from Broward, filed a bill that would limit depositions of human trafficking victims.

The Sun Sentinel’s investigation, Innocence Sold, found that Florida is one of three states in which sexual abuse victims can be deposed without exception. This provides a route for traffickers to intimidate victims out of cooperating with prosecutors, making it easier for them to evade more serious charges.

While prosecutors strongly support limiting depositions, defense attorneys consider them essential to preserving the right of the accused to confront their accuser and are afraid that new restrictions would go too far.

Osgood withdrew the bill after two days over concerns about the new limitations, but said that she plans to introduce a new version of the bill in the near future.

Other trafficking-related legislation is potentially on the horizon. The Sun Sentinel previously reported that advocates and lawmakers were coordinating on new bills ahead of the legislative session, which begins March 7.