As 18 percent of the nation’s youth are located in Florida, these children are the most at risk for abuse. However, progress of the fight against this issue was evident as the event announced the opening of the state’s first and only emergency shelter and two new safe homes for abused children and teens.
“It takes a village to raise a child, and, with this issue, it takes the entire community to do their part,” Chair of the Greater Orlando Human Trafficking Task Force Tomas Lares says.
A Close Collaboration
The Zebra Coalition aims to provide a place of support for LGBTQ youth as well as housing and support services. Devereux provides services to youth with a range of behavioral challenges and its foster care program serves 35 counties in Florida.
The three-hour event on Friday morning started with engaging workshops and discussions led by Program Director Erin Wirsing, MSW of Devereux Florida’s Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children Program and Heather Wilkie, director of the Zebra Coalition.
“You don’t have to be a service provider,” Wilkie says. “Just being a part of this community means that you may encounter someone who is experiencing these things, so you need to be educated about the issues.”
Following the training was a recognition ceremony for industry professionals who have made their mark in the fight against sex trafficking in the Central Florida area.
Lisa Haba, former assistant state attorney; Sue Aboul-Hosn, regional human trafficking coordinator at DCF; and Tomas Lares, chair of the Greater Orlando Human Trafficking Task Force, were all acknowledged. Each was presented a piece of artwork created by a Deverux child who has been affected by this issue.
Aboul-Hosn believes in the importance of these community training seminars to spread information area wide, especially in schools.
“We are not going to have prevention without awareness,” she says. “We’ve been working on that with the schools – Orange, Osceola and Seminole county have been very responsive.”
Attendees included former investigators of child exploitation cases, social workers, administrators and mental health professionals.
“We are excited to get the word out and really let Central Floridians know that this is occuring, unfortunately, in our own backyard,” Lares says. “But we can do something as citizens to help end it.”
Lares hosted the first National Human Trafficking Awareness Day in 2009 and celebrated the 10th annual march on Saturday, Jan. 27, 2018. The day consisted of a film festival with over 500 entries, testimonials from survivors and children-friendly online safety workshops.