It’s a crime that is so horrible it’s hard to imagine it happening in our own backyard — but statistics prove that it does, Cpl. Alan Wilkett, of the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office, told a group of Rushe Middle School parents.
Florida ranks third behind New York and California in the number of human trafficking cases, and Tampa Bay routinely ranks second or third in the state. Cpl. Alan Wilkett shared those numbers with a group of Rushe Middle School parents last week.
“Human trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery,” Wilkett said. “It involves exploitation,” adding that it could be sexual exploitation or forced servitude.
Wilkett came to the Land O’ Lakes school to inform parents about human trafficking at the suggestion of the school’s Parent Teacher Student Association president Anne Fisco.
Fisco had seen a presentation on the topic and believed parents and students at Rushe would benefit.
Rushe principal David Salerno said he wants parents to help their children avoid potential harm.
“Parents need to be aware of what the dangers are, not to scare them, but to inform them,” he said.
“We think this particular subject is one of those things that really needs to be talked about,” Wilkett said, noting he would be giving another presentation to the school’s students. The student talk, he said, would be tailored to the younger audience, with an emphasis on how to stay safe.
There’s an estimated 15,000 to 18,000 people trafficked in the United States each year, Wilkett said. Tampa Bay is fertile ground for the crime because it has major sports teams, is a popular tourist destination, brings in big conventions, has lots of hotels, and has a large agricultural economy.
The sports teams and tourism create crowds, which can generate more customers for prostitutes, Wilkett said. Trafficking victims can also be forced into servitude performing jobs at hotels, or in agriculture.
Victims often are bought or kidnapped in other countries and smuggled into the United States. They can be forced to work a circuit that takes them from New York to Florida to Texas in a matter of weeks, Wilkett said. They are moved around to avoid being detected.
Parents should be vigilant in protecting their children because there are also victims who are American, Wilkett said. These kids often are runaways, vulnerable kids who are lured by expert criminals.
Statistics show that 70 percent of the trafficking victims are female, and the slavery can begin before they even reach their teenage years. The youngest victim Wilkett’s ever run across was 8 years old.
Generally, trafficking victims have a lifespan of seven years because they are killed when they are no longer productive, he said.
The perpetrators tend to look for their victims in places where kids congregate, such as shopping malls, beaches and parks. They tend to go after kids who are alone or in groups of two, he said. They try to engage the kids by finding out what their interests are, or asking them if they’re hungry.
With boys, they might lure them in by talking about video games or sports. With girls, they may use sweet talk and offer to help them, Wilkett said.
The main thing is that they’re looking for some kind of hook. That’s their window of opportunity, he said.
Nicole Hahn, a parent in the crowd, asked Wilkett what parents can do.
“We don’t want to be helicopter parents, but we want our kids to be safe,” she said. “How do you give them some of that freedom, without making them vulnerable?”
Wilkett said that it’s tough to balance safety with freedom.
Parents should instruct their children to make a lot of noise if they feel threatened. They should scream, shout or do whatever they can to attract attention, he said.
It is also good to remember that there’s safety in numbers, Wilkett said. When kids go to a movie, or the mall, or the beach, they should go in groups of at least three, but preferably larger groups. They should also stick together once they get to wherever they’re going.
Parents also need to remind their kids that no one has a right to violate them, and that means no one, Wilkett said.
Human trafficking is a brutal, dehumanizing crime.
“People who traffic humans often smuggle drugs and guns,” Wilkett said, noting groups like the Russian mob and drug cartels typically use the same routes for human trafficking as they do for smuggling guns and drugs.
The crime often goes unreported because the victims can’t speak English, don’t trust the police because they were corrupt in their home country, or are afraid something will happen to them or their family, Wilkett said.
He asked those in the crowd to help in the fight against human trafficking.
“Be observant in your neighborhood,” Wilkett said. A house that has its windows covered with aluminum, for example, may be a place where illegal activity is occurring inside.
“Listen, especially for detecting an involuntary domestic servitude victim,” he said.
People who look down when you talk to them or don’t answer your questions may be afraid, he said. If something doesn’t sound or feel right, people should report it.
“At least give us the opportunity to go look at it,” Wilkett said, adding the sheriff’s office accepts anonymous tips.
Something has to be done to help these people, Wilkett said. “Inside, they are screaming, ‘I’m really not for sale. I’m really not for sale.’”
Parent Mechelle Flippo said she was glad she attended the meeting.
“Anytime you get information about something that can protect your child, you need to make that a priority,” Flippo said. “It is real. It does happen and it does happen in our community.”