That was the message from law enforcement and human services officials at an event at the St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in St. Pete Beach Wednesday, September 23, which highlighted the often invisible modern-day slavery that affects millions worldwide
“It’s not in the open,” said Detective Guy Kirby of the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office Special Victims Unit. “It takes a lot of work for us to find them.”
Human trafficking is a $9 billion a year business that holds men, women and children against their will for forced labor. Some victims work in the sex industry as exotic dancers, prostitutes or making pornography; others work at farms, landscaping businesses, hotels, carnivals, construction sites, factories, restaurants or in private homes as maids or nannies.
Florida ranks third in the U.S. for human trafficking after New York and Texas, said Kirby, who primarily works on commercial sex trafficking of minors in pornography and prostitution.
Trafficking victims seem invisible even though they may be in plain sight, officials say. It’s important to be alert for signs to report their plight to the authorities. “Look beneath the surface,” advises an anti-trafficking campaign by the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (888-373-7888).
Victims are often abused physically and psychologically by their captors, which is why they keep a low profile and don’t run away, Kirby said. Telltale signs are individuals who may refuse to make eye contact, show signs of being sick, abused or malnourished, or are accompanied by someone who always speaks for them.
The Internet has also become a major force today in exploitation and human trafficking, Kirby said.
“Lack of supervision online is my big thing,” Kirby said. Parents must keep tabs on the Internet, social media, cell phones and apps where predators troll constantly for young people who are socially isolated, he said.
Karina Stong, executive director of The Rachel Project, a Tampa-based non-profit, told the audience about the work her group does to educate young people to protect themselves from traffickers, whom she called “master manipulators.” Traffickers earn the trust of vulnerable youth by pretending to love them, giving them attention, praise, money and clothes. Then they coerce them to work for them, keeping them hostage with threats, abuse, fear and shame.
“We empower at-risk kids so they know what they’re looking at,” she said.
Speaking from personal experience, Niki Cross described how she became a victim as a troubled 15-year-old when a man who pretended to love her took her to another state and turned her into a prostitute.
“It has taken me many, many years to heal,” she said. Today she operates the only safe house in Pinellas County for trafficking victims and runs the S.T.A.A.R. Ministry to help them.
An audience member asked Kirby how ordinary people can recognize a victim of human trafficking. “When you see something weird, you’ll know the feeling,” he said. “Something’s not right.”