Protecting Our Children: 5 Years Later


Five years ago, Central Florida Lifestyle shined a light on how exploitation of children and adolescents takes place all around the world, including right here in Central Florida. Today, Florida still ranks third in the nation for reported human trafficking cases.

Human Trafficking is defined as “the transporting, soliciting, recruiting, harboring, providing, or obtaining of another person for transport; for the purposes of forced labor, domestic servitude or sexual exploitation using force, fraud and/or coercion.” And while all youth are vulnerable, there are certain youth who experience a higher risk of being trafficked. This includes foster youth and LGBTQ+ youth.

Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health Florida, a statewide organization providing specialized clinical services for trafficked youth, works with hundreds of children and adolescents throughout the state. Many of those served by Devereux have been foster youth who have experienced repeated trauma throughout their lives.

Zebra Coalition, an Orlando-based organization providing support for LGBTQ+ youth, has seen many instances where youth have experienced rejection from their families due to a lack of acceptance of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

The Department of Children and Families, a statewide government agency, is responsible for ensuring the safety of children from abuse, neglect, or abandonment while aiming to keep families together.

So, what better way to make impactful change than by creating a forum for these existing service providers to engage in the necessary conversations surrounding human trafficking?

That is how the Central Florida Human Trafficking Task Force, formerly known as the Greater Orlando Human Trafficking Task Force, came to be. Tomas Lares, Lindsey Phillips, Kim Grabert and Heather Wilkie were at the forefront of this movement, among the original members of this local task force.

Initially focused on education to support identification and reducing risk of human trafficking, the Task Force has evolved to help people develop the tools necessary to identify victims early on. This includes recognizing individuals who are at risk of being trafficked, providing interventions early on, and recognizing the importance of complex trauma treatment for young lives who have been impacted.

Where are They Now?

Tomas Lares

Lares serves as the Founder/President of United Abolitionists, formerly known as Florida Abolitionist, Inc. In his role Lares created a 24-hour Human Trafficking Hotline in Central Florida and advocated for Orange County Government to fund a first-of-its-kind adult female human trafficking crisis/short-term, 24-hour facility in the state of Florida.

He is also the co-founder of the Central Florida Human Trafficking Task Force, where he served as Chairman. “I’m no longer the Chairman but I will always be there as somebody to support the task force moving forward,” Lares says.

Kim Grabert

Grabert serves as Director of Program Development and Human Resources Manager at Citrus Family Care Network, the community-based care leading agency for Munroe and Miami-Dade County. According to Grabert, the organization has one of the most recognized specialized therapeutic foster care programs for trafficking in the nation.

“A lot of my work now that I do around trafficking is really geared more towards development,” Grabert says. “I have a consulting firm so I develop training as people might need. I help them write any policy and practices they might require outside of my role at Citrus.”

Lindsey Phillips

Phillips serves as the Director of External Affairs at Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health Florida. In her role she is focused on improving access to care for those in need and advocacy for individuals served through Devereux’s programs and services. With nearly 25 years dedicated to supporting those served through Devereux, she leads the strategic development of specialized services, including services for sexually exploited youth and community-based services for children with autism.

“I am not as directly involved in the grassroots awareness efforts as we all once were in the beginning and the good thing about that is a framework was established and there are many more people, including an entire team at Devereux, carrying that forward now,” Phillips says. “This allows some of us to remain focused on sustaining the movement and narrowing our focus to dig deeper in each of our areas of expertise.”

Heather Wilkie:

Wilkie is the Executive Director at Zebra Coalition. Currently the organization is working to expand housing to provide more housing opportunities and mental health support for youth.

“I’m here to advocate for LGBTQ+ youth,” Wilkie says. “That’s my lane and I know that there’s a much higher risk and so because of that we want to make sure that were staying on top of resources for youth, that we are working hard to raise awareness around the issue and that people understand the reasons why someone would be at a greater risk because of their sexual orientation and gender identity.”

What’s Next?

Five years ago, Phillips also said that there was a piece missing from the continuum of services available, referring to foster parents who are formally trained and dedicated to working with survivors. That piece is still evolving. “One of the key reasons for this is the great need for foster families to begin with. It’s a special, commitment, our families describe as a calling, to dedicate oneself to understanding trauma-based treatment and to know how rewarding that will ultimately be – to make that type of positive impact on someone’s life.”

“We’ve made some progress, there have been some great steps forward, but it’s a longer road to continue the momentum while educating the community about the many opportunities to be involved in some way,” says Phillips.

The Solution:

Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health Florida’s DELTA team remains fully dedicated to providing services in support of victims. Emily Garten, Clinical Director at Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health Florida and Andreena Harriman, a licensed clinical social worker, lead the DELTA program—a clinical specialty track for survivors of sexual exploitation.

In her role, Garten provides clinical oversight and support to Devereux Florida’s continuum of services and oversees Devereux Florida’s Commercial Sexual Exploitation for Children Program.

“We are continuously developing new partnerships and strengthening the ones that we do have with other mental health agencies, law enforcement, attorneys—anyone that may be involved in supporting the life of survivors, we need to have a collaborative partnership with,” Garten says.

“We’ve been able to provide a comprehensive level of support to individuals, including survivors by ensuring that everyone is on the same page and that we’re all working towards the same goal,” she says.

Harriman has a wealth of experience in supporting individuals overcoming trauma, including specialized expertise supporting victims of human trafficking. In her role, she provides clinical oversight of Devereux’s DELTA program. “I’ve had the amazing opportunity to work with adults, youth, and foster families to provide training and education to the community members to try to prevent exploitation,” she says.

Devereux remains strategically focused and committed as ever in this area, working to ensure that the services provided to people are continuously evolving and expanding to meet the unique needs of each individual and the contributing variables, such as environment and community resources.

“I think all organizations involved in this effort are continuing to develop best-practice. I see Devereux on the cutting edge of developing therapeutic interventions, continuing our partnerships with the local task forces and agencies involved, and contributing as thought leaders when it comes to therapeutic services for survivors,” Garten says.

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Written by Alexis George

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