Pasco commission combats human trafficking

The Pasco County Commission on Human Trafficking — which has been operating for five years — has been working to combat human trafficking.

The Pasco County Commission passed a resolution in 2014 to form the commission on human trafficking.

That action followed a growing awareness of human trafficking that was taking place in Pasco County, said Liana Dean, chairperson of the Pasco County Commission on Human Trafficking. “Law enforcement and child welfare were beginning to – within their respective sectors – recognize and see that human trafficking was an issue,” Dean said.

The Pasco County Commission on Human Trafficking was established in 2014 to address human trafficking within the county. Stephanie Costolo, left, is the commission’s vice chair and Liana Dean is the chairperson. Both are among its 11 members. (Courtesy of Liana Dean)

It’s a problem that spans across the globe, and also hits home here.

The human trafficking commission is made up of 11 members who represent different aspects of the community, including the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office, BayCare Behavioral Health, the Pasco County Commission, Pasco County Schools, nongovernmental organizations, businesses, child welfare and the faith-based community.

The commission does not directly interact with victims or their traffickers, but makes referrals when there are reports.

It directs attention toward law enforcement, shelters and the National Human Trafficking Hotline.

“Everything the commission is doing is geared toward awareness, education and advocacy,” Dean said.

That work includes holding public forums.

The community also is invited to ask questions or weigh in with their thoughts or concerns.

Stephanie Costolo, the commission’s vice chair, is a representative of the U.S. Institute Against Human Trafficking.

“Survivors have very different needs,” Costolo said. “They may need to go to drug detox, or they might need a domestic violence shelter environment. They might need a safe home, they might be underage, or male or female.”

In 2016, there were reportedly 40.3 million human trafficking victims worldwide, according to the International Labor Organization.

This figure may be skewed because there are victims who do not report their abuse.

According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, in 2017, Florida had the third-highest number of cases reported among states. That figure stood at 604.

The commission urges community members to be vigilant in keeping an eye out for human trafficking victims.

Signs include:

  • Few to no personal possessions
  • Their identification, travel documents or money is controlled by someone else
  • There are signs of malnourishment, dehydration or exhaustion
  • They have bruises, scars or untreated injuries
  • They have been isolated from community, family or friends
  • They are being denied access to medical care and other services

Also, look for this type of behavior:

  • They appear fearful, anxious or submissive
  • They avoid eye contact
  • They are not allowed to speak for themselves
  • They either don’t have an address, or don’t know what it is
  • They appear confused about where they are
  • They lack a sense of time
  • They appear fearful at the mention of law enforcement or immigration officials

Some environments can be red flags, too, Costolo said.

“Strip clubs are hot beds for sex trafficking to be happening in their VIP areas and their lounges, where people can ask for additional services,” she said.

Massage parlors also can be indicators, especially if they’re open 24 hours a day, have bars on the windows or have private parking.

“The International Labor Organization identifies 20 different forms of human trafficking globally. The forms we see most often, in the U.S., are labor trafficking, sex trafficking and domestic servitude – with the labor and sex really being the most predominant forms. Globally, we’re looking at forced marriages [and] child soldiers,” Costolo said.

Traffickers can take advantage of those who already come from a traumatic background or put fear in those who are undocumented immigrants, she said.

The commission has worked to raise awareness about the problem through social media, public service announcements on T.V., and billboard messages.

The commission also was instrumental in helping to pass a state mandate, implementing a human trafficking curriculum for those in kindergarten through 12th grade.

Individuals who want to help with the cause are encouraged to give donations to the commission or the organizations they collaborate with.

Another opportunity, to learn about the problem, is being presented on  Jan. 27 from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., at Pasco-Hernando State College – Porter Campus at Wiregrass Ranch, 2727 Mansfield Blvd., in  Wesley Chapel. Register at PHSC.edu/about/events.

While it’s important for community members to be on the lookout for clues regarding human trafficking, they should not directly engage in the situation, Dean said.

“The public’s role is to observe and report,” Dean said. “It is never to get involved. That is potentially dangerous for, not only the individual, but also the potential victim.”

Report your suspicions to local law enforcement or the National Human Trafficking Hotline.

The hotline can be reached at (888) 373-7888 or by texting, 233733 (BeFree).

Learn about human trafficking
What: Salon Talk
When: Jan. 27 from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Where: Pasco-Hernando State College – Porter Campus at Wiregrass Ranch, 2727 Mansfield Blvd., Wesley Chapel
Cost: Free, but registration is required online
Details: Human Trafficking experts and a survivor will inform the public about the global issue
Info: To register, visit PHSC.edu/about/events.

Published December 18, 2019

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