Racial bias makes it even harder to help save youth from sex trafficking, because people in power don’t pay as much attention to black, brown and indigenous victims, the leader of Broward County’s Human Trafficking Coalition said at a town hall meeting Saturday.
Speakers from Congress, the Florida Senate, victim advocacy groups, the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino and the Broward County State Attorneys Office convened at the African American Research Library and Cultural Center in Florida on Saturday to call attention to sex trafficking in the community. The annual event drew about 200 people, many of them casino employees bused in to listen and learn.
Like last year’s summit, this one gave particular attention to girls of color. Coalition President Jumorrow Johnson, anti-trafficking coordinator for the Broward State Attorney’s Office, said society has a double standard. Often, runaways fall victim to sex trafficking. But when girls of color disappear, the sense of urgency to find them is lacking, she said.
“This is a human rights issue,” Johnson said, “and it’s going to take all of us to care before we can even put a dent in this problem.”
U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, D-Weston, noted a lack of media interest in missing girls of color, and the flip side, known as “Missing White Woman Syndrome.”
“Why does a pretty white girl matter more than any other person?,” said Wasserman-Schultz, a longtime advocate for sex trafficking victims and one of the speakers at Saturday’s town hall meeting. “ ... Every single person that is trafficked is a human being.”
The South Florida Sun Sentinel investigated domestic sex trafficking and reported in a recently published Innocence Sold series and accompanying Felonious Florida podcast that girls who go missing are often shrugged off by busy law enforcement. Teens go missing every day in South Florida, but few make the news. Hotels get away with thousands of violations of an anti-trafficking law, the state foster care system funnels children into the sex trade and the criminal justice system punishes victims, the Sun Sentinel reported.
Vanessa Alvarado, a sex trafficking victim who was lured in and sold to traffickers by a woman she trusted, told Saturday’s crowd that workers at some hotels where she was trafficked knew what she was doing there, but didn’t help.
“It was so often, I knew their names. They’d know me by my face. They’d say, ‘Hey, you’re working like one week? Two weeks?’ ”
Another of the panelists, Paul Pellizzari, vice president of global social responsibility for Hard Rock International, said Hard Rock trains employees, so that flagging suspected trafficking victims becomes part of the business culture. He said companies in hospital, hotels and casinos need to speak frankly about the problem, even if it’s uncomfortable to do so.
“Acknowledge that it affects our business,” he urged, “and find a way to talk about it both internally and externally.”
State Sen. Rosalind Osgood, a Democrat who recently served on the Broward County School Board, said the Legislature will debate numerous human trafficking bills in the coming legislative session, including one that would help victims get legal representation to clear their records.
Legislators from both parties have vowed reforms to address sex trafficking.
Osgood urged parents to ask probing questions. If your child has more than one calculator on the cell phone, that’s trouble. One of them could be a sexting app masquerading as a calculator. Osgood said children without money are particularly vulnerable. They might be offered hundreds of dollars to be photographed in the nude, she said.
If you see a 13-year-old with a designer bag, shoes and purse, she said, ask questions.
“This is something we should be more outraged about,” said Osgood. “It is a serious thing that is happening in our communities and it could actually be happening right in your house. We have to talk to each other. We have to pay attention.”
Many victims of sex trafficking were first victims of sexual abuse as young children. That’s what happened to Shanika Ampah, a panelist Saturday who now is a nurse working with trafficking victims. Healing, she said, is “a mental battle. It’s an uphill climb and a downhill fall, multiple times.”
Assistant State Attorney Danielle Lennox said that’s why parents should teach young children the proper names for their private parts, so they can report it properly if they’re abused.
“Vagina and penis, ok everyone?” she said. “Those are the proper names and we should be teaching those names to our kids. … So that if anything happens to them, they can get the help they need.”
Harold Pryor, Broward County state attorney, told the crowd that it’s “great to have forums like this.” But, he cautioned, “it’s nothing if you come here and do nothing about it.”
Afterwards, the dozens of participants gathered outside, holding triangular blue envelopes with live butterflies inside. Johnson asked each person to whisper to the butterfly, in honor of “the lost, the taken, the missing and the murdered,” in hopes they might be found.
“You are not forgotten. You matter,” the envelopes said.
Brittany Wallman is the Sun Sentinel investigations editor. She can be reached at 954-356-4541. Find her on Twitter @BrittanyWallman. Contact the investigations team at ITeam@SunSentinel.com