When the Pasco County Commission on Human Trafficking was created nearly a decade ago, it was forging into unchartered waters.
“We were the first commission established in the state of Florida,” Liana Dean, chairwoman of the commission said during the Pasco County Commission’s Jan. 9 meeting.
“We have been looked to for guidance, not only in the region, but around the state,” she said.
“I feel like we’ve really made an impact over the past decade,” she added.
The Pasco County Commission on Human Trafficking is made up of individuals in the following sectors who are working together to combat human trafficking.
There’s a member of the county board; two representatives from the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office; a representative from Pasco County Schools; a community/victim services advocate; a representative from the tourism/hospitality industry; a medical and/or behavioral health professional; a faith-based community member; an anti-human trafficking community advocate; a member from the business sector; a survivor of human trafficking; a professor/researcher from a local institution of higher learning; and a member-at-large, from any of the identified sectors.
Working to raise awareness, to educate
Over the last decade the local commission has trained close to 15,000 people both here and across Florida, helping them understand how to identify the signs of human trafficking and what to do when they do.
The commission has put together public awareness campaigns, which have achieved an estimated 6 million impressions, Dean said.
Its in-person events have attracted thousands of people, Dean said.
“We were the first county in the state of Florida to get human trafficking curricula into all of Pasco County schools. That was huge, before the state legislature mandated it. We got calls from all over the state of Florida: ‘How did you all do that?’
“So, I feel that the things we’ve been able to accomplish have really positioned us as a leader in the state of Florida, when it comes to addressing human trafficking and preventing it,” she said.
The commission also has worked with a group of teen students who have created three public service announcements aimed at combating human trafficking.
“That is messaging that the kids put together. They were so concerned about messaging they were receiving on social media, the things that they were bombarded with, the attempts to recruit them, the attempts to groom them – that they wanted to address it,” she said.
The public service announcements are expected to air on television in coming months.
“We’re also educating RV Parks in Pasco County. We touched every RV Park and have given them education and information about human trafficking,” Dean said.
“So, that was a big initiative that we did last year. We partnered with GoPasco to put information on all of the buses in Pasco County, not just for the general public but to reach potential victims, as well.
“We worked with law enforcement, all five law enforcement agencies to get information out. We partnered with Fire Rescue to launch the same campaign.”
The group’s survivor representative, Laura Henderson, also addressed the board.
She briefed them on the local commission’s plans for this year.
“We plan to train all 3,300 county staff on human trafficking and provide them with a wallet-size card that outlines indicators and red flags, as well as how to report.
“County staff also will be provided with materials on how to seek help that they can give to potential victims they may encounter,” she said.
It also will promote the public service announcement prepared by Teens Battle Human Trafficking, which will air on television and will stream on social media.
The commission and a partner will host an event aimed at engaging business in the battle to end human trafficking.
It also will partner with Pasco Fire Rescue to create awareness materials. And, it will create a mailer that can be sent out to Pasco households.
The local commission also is partnering with the University of South Florida’s Advocacy Lab to further regional anti-trafficking efforts, as well as taking steps to address labor trafficking.
Human trafficking is a significant problem
In addition to hearing from representatives of the human trafficking commission, the county board also adopted a resolution that provides perspective on the scope of the problem.
The resolution declared the month of January as national slavery and human trafficking prevention month, and Jan. 11 as national human trafficking awareness day in Pasco.
The resolution defines human trafficking as “a crime against a person whereby, through exploitation, an individual is compelled to work or engage in a commercial sex act through force, fraud, or coercion, thereby being stripped of their rights and humanity.”
The resolution adds that “traffickers typically use multiple means to control their victims, including beatings, rape, isolation, forced drug/alcohol dependency, withholding of documentation, and psychological and emotional abuse.”
The resolution cites statistics from the International Labor Organization that “conservatively estimates that there are over 49.6 million victims of human trafficking worldwide, and that this crime is second only to the illegal drug trade in terms of the speed of its growth and the profits that it generates, as human beings can be sold repeatedly.”
The resolution also notes that human trafficking has been reported in all 50 states, with Florida consistently ranking third in the nation in both the number of calls made to the National Human Trafficking Hotline and the number of cases identified.
In Florida in 2021, there were 781 identified cases of trafficking involving 1,253 victims, with 151 being children, the resolution adds.
Pasco County Commissioner Gary Bradford, who worked in law enforcement, sponsored the resolution.
He said “the work the Pasco County Commission on Human Trafficking does toward educating not only individuals, but entire organizations, is hugely important.”
He added: “This month, I urge everyone on how to identify the signs of human trafficking and report potential illegal activity to local and state law enforcement.”
Pasco County Clerk & Comptroller Nikki Alvarez-Sowles also offered her thoughts on the topic.
“This is something that my team sees every day, day in and day out,” she said.
She thanked the members on the commission on human trafficking for the work that they do.
“It is so critical and so important.
“We’re going to help you put that word out, so we can help to put a stop to human trafficking,” the clerk said.
Commissioner Kathryn Starkey added: “I want to thank you for all of the work you do, and the awareness you bring to human trafficking.
“I’m so proud of our county in being first in so many ways, on this topic.”
She also thanked Henderson, a survivor of human trafficking, for having the courage to step forward.
The first-hand testimony resonates with listeners, Starkey said.
Commission Chairman Ron Oakley, who sat on the human trafficking commission’s board for six years, thanked the members of that commission for its continuing work.
“A lot of people don’t know that you are nationally known for all of the good work you’ve done in the past, and you continue to do so,” Oakley said.
Common signs that may indicate human trafficking
Do they show signs of physical abuse, such as bruises in various stages of healing?
Are they able to speak with individuals alone?
Do they speak in a manner that appears to be scripted or rehearsed?
Do they appear to be monitored by another person?
re they disconnected from family, friends or community?
o they live in poor conditions?|
Can they freely leave where they live?
Do they lack personal possessions and identification documents?
If you suspect someone is a victim of human trafficking, call the National Trafficking Hotline at 800-373-7888.
Published January 17, 2024