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BREAKING: More Florida children forced into sex trade, state finds

More children in Florida were victims of commerical sexual exploitation in 2016 compared to 2015, according to a recent state study.

Law-enforcement agencies across the state reported 356 cases of children being forced into the sex trade in 2016, compared to 264 cases in 2015, the state’s Office of Program Policy Analysis & Government Accountability.

Human trafficking reports rise in Florida; young adults targeted

There were 17 verified cases in Palm Beach County in 2016, six in St. Lucie County and three in Martin County, the state’s report shows. State officials say the number of verified cases may be due to increased public awareness about the issues of human trafficking, which some have described as modern-day slavery.

The National Human Trafficking Hotline received 2,387 reported of trafficking involving minors in 2016, including 169 from Florida.

State attorney credits task force with rise in human trafficking arrests

The vast majority of commercially sexually exploited children in Florida — 91 percent, or about 325 cases — between the ages of 14 and 17, the state’s report says. Of the state’s 356 verified findings in 2016, 93 percent — about 330 cases — were girls, the report said.

Bonnie Jo Daniels, the project director for Hope For Freedom, cautioned that trafficking statistics for boys tend to be underreported.

“Boys don’t come forward as the easily as the girls,” said Daniels, whose organization is the anti-human trafficking initiative based out of Christ Fellowship Church in Palm Beach Gardens. “There’s a stronger shame factor when it comes to the boys.”

Daniels said the organization, which runs a local safe house for girls, has seen its number of cases increase during the past year. She was not able Monday to specify how many.

Daniels said she believes increased awareness and efforts to shed light on human trafficking have contributed in part to more cases being reported.

Florida Department of Children and Families secretary Mike Carroll addressed the report’s findings during a meeting of the Statewide Council on Human Trafficking Services and an Resource Committee on Thursday in Tallahassee. Carroll acknowledged that combating the trafficking of minors remains a significant challenge, but also said he believes the state has made progress in recent years.

“When I think about three years ago, there wasn’t even a real good understanding of what human trafficking was in this state,” Carroll said. “What the scale and scope of it was, what impacts it had. … I think public awareness is up. I think this topic is pervasive now in all our agencies, including education and health.”

According to state’s report, Palm Beach County was sixth among Florida’s 67 counties in the number of verified cases of commercial sexual exploitation involving children behind Broward at 52, Orange 41, Miami-Dade 40, Hillsborough 36 and Duval 26.

The state report indicated that, among the cases where a child’s living arrangement was known, 59 percent of reported victims lived with at least one parent. Daniels said that recent studies have shown that children living with family can be just as vulnerable to traffickers as those in foster care.

“We’re seeing the trafficker is targeting both the community child and the child in foster care. It’s becoming more of a community problem,” she said.

Human trafficking has become a major concern for local law enforcement with at least 10 people in Palm Beach County, and one in Martin County, arrested on labor or sex trafficking charges.

Since the beginning of the year, at least 10 people in Palm Beach County and one person in Martin County have been arrested on charges of labor or sex trafficking. Three men have been accused of luring, or attempting to lure, teenage girls into prostitution.

In separate cases, authorities alleged that Marco Orrego of suburban Boynton Beach and Steven Snipe of suburban West Palm Beach used the website Backpage to advertise teenage girls for sexual services.

Orrego faces state and federal charges related to human trafficking. Snipe is facing lewd and lascivious and may face human trafficking charges pending evidence collected from a search warrant. Joel Bautista Trinidad of Lantana is accused of trying to lure a middle-school girl and her friends into prostitution.

Andre Benjamin of Riviera Beach was arrested in May for alleged labor trafficking after authorities accused him of using a teenage girl to sell drugs for him.

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