Monday, Sep 01, 2014
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Agencies work to spread human trafficking awareness in Hernando

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BROOKSVILLE - Over the past 10 years in Hernando County, there have been no verified human trafficking cases reported in the county.

But a lack of numbers doesn't mean there isn't a problem, and isn't keeping local law enforcement and community agencies from working together to educate themselves on the issue, and train how to respond.

Shannon Sokolowski, executive director of the Dawn Center, said human trafficking can be "underreported," or counted under different classifications.

"We actually shelter quite a few prostituted women that come through (the Dawn Center), and that's trafficking. But how do we classify them? We're classifying them as domestic violence because they are intimate partners, who are pimping them out, or we classify them as sexual abuse victims, so they're not being tagged as trafficked persons," Sokolowski said.

Sokolowski said a woman recently called the center looking for help after she was lured to Florida under the guise of a home health-aid job. When she arrived, the story from the job posting turned out to be false, and she was assaulted by her supposed employer.

"She doesn't know anyone in Florida, she's removed from everybody. By every definition, that's a trafficking case, but she hadn't reported it to law enforcement," Sokolowski said. "I think these victims are coming through our centers but being classed ... as a different kind of crime."

The Dawn Center recently decided to update its classification system. Victims will still be classified by type of abuse, but the new system will allows subclasses, such as labor or sex trafficking, Sokolowski said. She expects the new system to be in place by the end of the month.

The Florida Statutes define human trafficking as "a form of modern day slavery." Trafficked persons can be men or women, young or old - anyone who has been recruited, harbored or transported to do a job by means of fraud, coercion.

Many human trafficking victims work in prostitution or the sex industry, according to the statute, but many are also trafficked to work labor jobs in homes and restaurants, as janitors or in sweatshops.

More than 27 million people are trafficked across the world, with 2.5 million of those here in the United States, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Florida ranked third in the nation for calls to a human trafficking hotline in 2011, according to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center.

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi has declared Florida a "zero tolerance" state for human trafficking and in 2012 the legislature increased penalties for human trafficking.

Some of the changes include increasing human smuggling penalties from a first-degree misdemeanor to a third-degree felony charge, according to the Bondi's website.

Janine Hammett, program director of the Child Advocacy Center of Hernando County and member of the Tri-County Human Trafficking Response Team, said Tampa and Orlando are "big hubs" for human trafficking, and the cases can "trickle down" to neighboring counties.

"Is it here? That's a really hard question to answer. It's everywhere, but do we have any confirmed ... human trafficking cases? No.," said Florida Department of Law Enforcement Special Agent Edie Neal.

Neal, who oversees the community response team for Hernando, Citrus and Sumter Counties, said like any crime, human trafficking may go unreported. But her primary focus, along with law enforcement and community agencies involved with the response team, is to be proactive and raise awareness.

"One of the biggest hurdles is people don't understand what human trafficking is," Neal said, adding a big part of working cases is making the public aware of warning signs, and being able to respond with the proper resources.

Neal said common warning signs are younger juveniles with older boyfriends who provide them with clothes, jewelry and transportation. Chronic runaways are at risk, Neal said, as are juveniles abused as children.

Later this year, FDLE's uniform crime report will include human trafficking numbers thanks to a new coding system, according to FDLE spokeswoman Deborah McDonald.

Being proactive is a priority for Grace World Outreach Church as well, said spokesman David Beal. The church is planning a 5K run on Saturday, March 22 in Brooksville's Tom Varn Park.

"Our main goal is to educate our community," Beal said. "It's not a major deal here, but with the economy and the ways things are going, they are targeting our rural area because we're naive, and we don't want to be."

Beal said the funds raised at the run will directly benefit trafficking victims, and the church is working on training programs for public schools.

"Basically, taking a stand is the first step," Beal said. "Just making other people aware there is a problem. We want to say that's enough, and be proactive in our community."

wbiddlecombe@hernandotoday.com

(352) 544-5283

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