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County officials to human traffickers: We’re watching you

More than 100 law enforcement officials, school teachers, doctors and politicians packed the swanky Atlantis Country Club Thursday to tackle an ugly statewide problem that is also raising concerns in Palm Beach County — human sex trafficking.

The International Labor Organization estimates there are more than 20.9 million victims of human trafficking globally. Forced labor and human trafficking, the organization says, is a $150 billion industry worldwide.

Florida is the No. 3 state in the nation for trafficking, with children as young as 12 at risk of becoming a victim.

“People in my office keep telling me that we don’t have a problem,” Assistant State Attorney Justin Hoover told a gathering at the Combating Human Trafficking symposium sponsored by Partner Organizations Against Sex Trafficking. “But that’s not true. It’s here and we have to be looking for it.”

On Jan. 1, the National Human Trafficking Hotline legislation, or HB 369, went into effect, requiring the posting of the hotline and text numbers in key transportation spots (highways, airports, train stations), in emergency rooms, strip clubs and massage parlors.

Rep. Dave Kerner, D-Lake Worth, was one of the bill’s champions.

“That bill was highly unpopular,” Kerner said. “But human trafficking has been pushed to the forefront. In the past, the issue was mostly dealt with at the Federal level… but Florida has really stepped up.”

Kerner is now trying to push a companion bill, HB 469, which would require doctors to take a one-hour continuing education course on human trafficking.

“HB 369 was about awareness to the community… HB 469 is about reaching out to front line health care providers,” Kerner said.

Law enforcement officers, however, are having a tough time curbing the problem and making arrests.

Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Dale Fox said one of the reasons is many victims are undocumented and afraid to talk.

“One of the biggest challenges is getting them to come forward,” Fox said.

Victims are also scared because traffickers know how to manipulate and extort them.

“They will threaten their families if they refuse to their work agreements,” he said. “They come here with a promise they will make a lot of money, but that’s just a ploy to get them here and control them. These traffickers are basically gangs.”

The cases often take months or years to prosecute, Fox said, because traffickers are constantly moving. “Once we lose track of them, it’s hard to move forward with investigations.”

Kerner noted while the state ranks high in human trafficking, it ranks low (No. 49) in funding for mental health groups and state agencies.

“There’s a correlation between the way the state funds their priorities and how prevalent human trafficking is,” he said. “DCF (The Florida Department of Children and Families) plays such an important role in the fabric of our communities… but we continue to fund it at the lowest levels nationwide.”

Hoover said the county — and state — must continue to step up its efforts in the fight to help human traffic victims.

“They’re not calling 911,” he said. “We have to be vigilant about seeking these people out.”

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