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Florida attorney general pushes state to be more aggressive with feds over human trafficking

Florida has ranked among the states with the highest incidents of human trafficking for at least a decade
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Florida has ranked among the states with the highest incidents of human trafficking for at least a decade

Attorney General Ashley Moody says federal government to blame for prevalence of trafficking

Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody is touting the take-down of a human trafficking ring by a new statewide strike force. Moody blames the federal government for the prevalence of trafficking and is pushing Florida to be more aggressive.

“Human trafficking is an atrocious crime.”

Moody is known for her passionate opposition to human trafficking.

“And certainly, in the last few years with the wide-open border and the lack of enforcement of the rule of law as it pertains to the border, this has been an even greater challenge,” she said.

On Thursday, Moody announced the bust of a trafficking ring in the Tampa Bay area and the rescue of 10 of its victims. She also announced the new Florida Human Trafficking Strike Team, which is helping local law enforcement already. Their latest arrest was Lina Payne, who is accused of recruiting women from South America with promises of jobs, then forcing them into sex work to pay off their travel debts, often under threats of violence.

Florida has ranked among the states with the highest incidents of human trafficking for at least a decade, according to calls made to the national human trafficking hotline. But Moody is unhappy with that hotline, and so she’s established a state hotline that reports directly to Florida law enforcement. Moody is critical of Catherine Chen, who leads the national hotline under a grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“Unfortunately, within the last couple of years, under this administration, the new executive director has decided to stop forwarding those tips directly to law enforcement," Moody said. "And as you can imagine, in Florida, we work cooperatively with and support the efforts of the men and women of law enforcement.”

The national hotline has been in existence for 17 years and has served 75,000 victims and survivors on a 24/7 basis. According to Chen, they report about 30 percent of their cases to law enforcement.

Those include all cases involving the abuse, neglect or trafficking of a minor, which are reported to child welfare as well as to law enforcement… cases involving violence or the imminent threat of harm or death…if an adult victim of trafficking asks them to call…or if an adult victim asks someone else to call for them.

Chen says the other 70 percent of their callers are usually seeking services, and often call several times before they ask. And callers often don’t want law enforcement involved. The reason hotline staff puts those decisions in the hands of callers…

“…is the loss of power and autonomy," said Chen. "It’s the loss of the ability to make your own decisions. And it’s the loss of the ability to control your circumstances.”

Chen says many victims are in relationships with their traffickers, even share children with them. And many traffickers know where the loved ones of their victims live, and threaten to harm them.

“What we are trying our best to do is to rebuild trust and to rebuild agency as fast as we can," Chen said. "And to help that person – who knows what is the safest for them, who knows all the different dimensions of what they have to deal with – make the choices that are right for them.”

Now Florida has a new state hotline, 855-FLA-SAFE, so that people can report directly to law enforcement. The Florida House of Representatives voted unanimously for the bill that created it, and Gov. Ron. DeSantis signed it into law last month. Actually, the function of reporting human trafficking was added to an already-established hotline that also reports food stamp fraud and gasoline pump fraud.

Moody urges the public to call in tips to law enforcement if they suspect trafficking, even if it’s something they aren’t sure is significant…

“…and they’ll call, and we can solve a cold case. Whether it’s a change of consciousness or they have a feeling it’s more than they initially thought – call! It’s not going to be any skin off our back to run it down.”

Moody says with those tips, law enforcement agencies often can review reports of suspected trafficking and put plans in place to rescue victims.

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Florida’s trafficking hotline number is (855) 352-7233. The National Human Trafficking Hotline number is (888) 373-7888.

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Margie Menzel