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See How They Run

A recent article in the Orlando Sun Sentinel in Florida exposed something that literally everyone has always known is going on, but no one wanted to take accountability for: The exploitation of young girls in foster care.

The situation is alarming, to say the least, but it’s definitely not new information to advocates and activists. These children, separated from family members for myriad reasons, are placed in group homes run by the state child welfare system. Those who make it out alive often end up in jail or prison. The vulnerable young women at the center of the controversy make up nearly 90% of the reentry cases we manage at SBB. We are intimately aware of their lives, and of the circumstances that lead them to physical and sexual gender based violence. Violence that goes unreported, unserviced and dismissed because they are “just runaways” or, if an underage young man, “renegade youth”.

The article’s focus is on a 16 year-old runaway named Jayden. Jayden was found dead in a Jacksonville motel room and her body went unidentified for more than a month. Rather than unpacking the incompetence of the coroner’s office - who’s responsibility it was to identify her and find her family - the article’s author pivots squarely to the usual finger pointing at the Department of Children and Families and other private agencies entrusted with her care. In fact, the Sun Sentinel article tries to take credit for “exposing” a broken system when, spoiler alert! Everyone knows it is broken.

In one particularly infuriating section, the author quotes US Representative Debbie Wasserman Shultz, who slithers out of her own accountability for being a part of the creation of the broken system. “There’s no easy solution,” she deflects, “because children who are placed in foster care or in group homes were removed from their families for a reason.”

And then in the same breath…

“It’s just a travesty that when a white girl goes missing, it seems disproportionately [more] important to the media, to law enforcement, than it does when girls of color disappear. When a girl, or any child, goes missing, there should be urgency. You’re rescuing them from one horrific situation and putting them potentially at risk for another. Group homes are never the best environment for children. Institutionalizing a child is not a normal environment or potentially a healthy one.”

Let’s get into why this virtue signaling is offensive, and what’s actually going on behind the scenes when it comes to Florida’s foster care-to-sex trafficking pipeline: :

For her part, Rep. Shultz is the author of legislation intended to combat human trafficking by educating and posting of the aforementioned breakroom and truck stop signs about trafficking “warning signs”. The Human Trafficking and Exploitation Prevention Training Act, H.R.4989, would create a grant program within the Office of Trafficking in Persons under the Department of Health and Human Services to “provide training for students, teachers and other school personnel on the warning signs of human trafficking.”

The misrepresentation of statistics provided to the legislature is set forth by Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody. When asked what her office is doing to stem the flow of foster care girls into trafficking, a spokeswoman (Moody refused an interview) pointed to a whole two recent trafficking cases prosecuted by her office, one involving a runaway and the other a foster child.

Moody has been convening task forces and committees for years and the state has successfully prosecuted fewer than 25 sex trafficking cases in the past 5 years.

But these numbers seem diametrically opposed when placed against the announcement that Florida “found” 896 HT cases in 2019 and recovered 22000 victims. Where are those victims and how were those cases adjudicated? And more distressingly, how many of them ended up in jail as a result of their “recovery” and now might face years of criminal justice intervention? And how many are or were a part of the state's broken foster care system?

Moody hasn’t proliferated these grandiose delusions of “in your backyard” criminal activity without the assistance of the drunken sailor, money guzzling, largely faith-based non-profit organizations provide false information and statistics, limited and grossly discriminatory services to “perfect victims” and severely limited support to people who have experienced arrest and incarceration, sexual and domestic violence and are typically impoverished and underhoused. The organizations that serve are supposed to advocate for victims and survivors and instead lobby for legislative efforts to increase policing, then ingratiate themselves to legislators and policy makers, as well as push their agenda with law enforcement at every level. They are incredibly effective at garnering favor from various agencies and political players.

Sheriff Grady Judd arrests hundreds of people in his quarterly Human Trafficking undercover sting operations. Largely - but not completely - shifting targets from hustlers who trade sex to buyers of sexual services, his press conferences are breathlessly covered by local news outlets who absorb the dramatically titled operations and artistically displayed mugshots. To his credit, Judd is a hell of a storyteller; he has an uncanny ability to say “I don’t give a shit about people who trade sex”, sometimes without saying the actual words, but his disdain for victims and survivors - and most certainly sex workers - is predictable biblical.

After years of constant harassment, undercover sting operations and triumphant Law Enforcement press conferences, the City of Jacksonville agreed to pay a $60,000 settlement to Wacko’s and Emperor’s Gentlemen’s Clubs for the illegal arrests of performers, illegal searches and the closure of the clubs due those very same arrests. Orlando’s Metropolitan Bureau of Investigation - the morality police governing drugs and prostitution - held a press conference in 2017, backdropped with black mercedes party vans and a couple of luxury cars, announced their own major “sex trafficking ring” closed for business during Operation Overnight Kiss, but here’s the thing: The carseat they breathlessly mentioned to the huddle of reporters? It was not used to cart around children with the intention of exploitation, harm or abuse; it was used to take the owner's child to school. And the owner was, in yet another twist of irony, the boyfriend of an MBI agent's sister, who went on to be promoted within the local law enforcement organization.

As a matter of course, the press conference states there are multiple victims, but they can never seem to locate most of them. Also, they went on to hold criminal charges over the head of one of them until she completed testifying against the escort service owner. A former agent within the Florida Department of Law Enforcement - the LEAD agency governing Law Enforcement Departments throughout the state of Florida - was demoted after they discovered he had propositioned one of the survivors in a desperate, drunken attempt to woo her into an intimate relationship she had repeatedly indicated she had no interest in. She later moved out of state to escape his relentless advances.

Florida has been gleefully hyping them selves as a central figure in the sex trafficking of minors and adults for more than a decade, although their interest in vulnerable adult women has declined dramatically. Media outlets like the Orlando Sentinel article are constantly vigilant for stories of sex trafficking, when Florida is home to much larger industries of exploitative label such as hospitality and agriculture. From Orange and grapefruit groves to tomatoes, strawberries to blueberries, Florida's agricultural industries rely heavily on cheap migrant labor; a recent strike against the Publix Supermarket chain from the Immokalee Tomato Growers in Jacksonville asking for an increase of a mere 1 cent per pound increase, was shut down sharply and with little fanfare.

Florida is a tourist mecca with Orlando-area theme parks consistently being in the top 10 tourist destinations in the United States, often jockeying for position with Las Vegas and New York City. The beautiful beaches that surround the entire state employ thousands of hospitality industry workers - most of whom struggle to find affordable housing, regularly experience food insecurity and have zero job protections, Employee benefits are only offered to specific roles within the top tiers of the corporate hierarchy. This means that hotel workers, restaurant employees and any of the offshoot industries playing a supportive role in keeping our visitors feeling comfortable and welcomed, rely on cheap labor. These conditions, ironically, mandate that vulnerable workers take a human trafficking curriculum on an annual basis, post Human Trafficking awareness signs in breakrooms and rest stops, and encourage employees, guests and visitors to report possible exploitation to a National Human Trafficking Hotline with outdated and debunked “signs of trafficking” information that isn’t even recognized by the Department of Justice anymore.

Florida is also home to a multitude of Human Trafficking Task Forces, all largely unrecognized as “official” task forces by government, and all largely made up of the faith based non-profits. Members meet quarterly, and most of their meetings begin with the “testimony” of a local faith based group that supports the “raid and rescue” mentality of typical southern evangelicals. In their eyes, prostitution in any form is a sin against God and must be abolished at any cost. Very few survivors are present at their quarterly meetings because of the toxicity that - as one survivor put it: “hangs in the air where the power dynamics are palpable”.

Unofficial task forces cannot address critical infrastructure, best practices or service provision for vulnerable populations. They absolutely dismiss the notion that generational poverty might play any kind of role. They desperately look for someone to point the finger of blame. For a long while, it was the criminal mind of women who posted ads on backpage. Their attention then turned to “traffickers” and “pimps”. When those were discovered to be in short supply, they landed squarely on the clients of those who trade sex.

The Orlando Sentinel article points to the Department of Children and Families as the facilitator of trafficking the kids in their care and claims that Foster Care and the homes that open their doors to vulnerable youth are solely at fault for the tragic circumstances that befell young Jayden and those like her. The facts are very different.

Maligning the people who toil endlessly against the pressures of a system designed to have a high floor and low ceiling is profoundly unfair. The burden of negative externalities does not fall on the shoulders of the bureaucrats and social workers, all of whom are constantly contorting their practices to the whims of the politicians and Law Enforcement grandstanders who hand down the departmental policy edicts. The Sentinel article is like most “mainstream” narratives about this issue: its intention is (probably) in the “right place”. Without centering advocates in its coverage, though, they have the same effect on the core problem that an enthusiastic child has on a game of Operation.

The Florida Department of Children and Families has been a top heavy system for decades. It takes its orders from the Florida Legislature. The Florida Legislator is informed by inflammatory, inaccurate academic studies and politically motivated faith based organizations who claim “God has called them” to be the facilitator of restoration for “fallen women and girls”. Law Enforcement asks DCF to assist in almost every trafficking case, but provides them no tools to solve the largely underlying problem of - yes - here we are once again - generational poverty.

Want to end trafficking? Address poverty. Want to fix the foster care system? Elect legislators who formulate policy based on the expertise of those in the field doing the day-to-day work with abused, neglected and exploited children and young adults.

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