Protecting Our Children

It was once said that, “parenting is the biggest sacrifice one can make. A parent, regardless of whether or not they are bonded by blood, puts their life on hold to fulfill the promise of a child’s future.”

Foster parents have an unconditional commitment to improving the life and future of a child who may not otherwise have an opportunity to succeed in today’s society. This is the key to the growth of that child both physically and emotionally. For many couples, opening their homes can become even more challenging when they choose to foster a child who has been a victim of human trafficking.

Although many believe that human trafficking only happens in other countries or in certain areas or among certain classes, this horrific exploitation of children and adolescents is happening right here in Central Florida.
Florida ranks as one of the top three states in the U.S. for human trafficking. This crime of children being sold into a growing market of sex and labor by predators that lure innocent youth using social media and other methods of persuasion happens every day, right in front of us and in our own community.

Befriended with promises of something more – money, a relationship or a sense of belonging – the trafficker gains the child’s trust before eventually subjecting him or her to a horrible existence. Local law enforcement officer, Patrick Guckian, describes what happens as a result. “We are dealing with victims, usually under-aged girls, who have been exploited, have been traumatized, and have been through horrendous events, repeatedly.”

Would you know the signs of human trafficking if you saw it?

Most Vulnerable
While all neighborhoods and any youth are vulnerable, there are certain youth who are particularly vulnerable. This includes foster youth and LBGT youth. Cofounder and Chairman of the Greater Orlando Human Trafficking Task Force Tomas Lares explains why. “Traffickers prey on the most vulnerable,” he says. “This includes children, teens, those who have a history of abuse, or a history of rejection.”

Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health Florida, a statewide organization providing specialized clinical services for trafficked youth, has worked 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 young lives.

The Zebra Coalition, an Orlando-based organization providing support for LGBT 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. They end up on the streets in a terrifying world they never imagined could exist in Orlando.
This is where the strong collaboration among Devereux, the Department of Children and Families, the Zebra Coalition, the Greater Orlando Human Trafficking Task Force, law enforcement, and other provider organizations, come into play.

The Solution
In 2012, leaders from key organizations came together to create a forum for existing service providers and first responders to engage in the necessary conversations surrounding human trafficking. Local and statewide task forces were formed, including the Greater Orlando Human Trafficking Task Force. The collaboration that developed as a result has led to a positive and lasting impact in the community. Working in partnership, these key organizations are providing Central Florida with the possibility to increase awareness and the ability to navigate a system of care so available resources can be navigated rapidly.

“The more parents are informed, the safer their children are,” Lares says. “We want people who live and work in Central Florida to know what to look for and when they see the signs, to know what to do.”

More Work to be Done
Part of the task force, Devereux is further developing a continuum of service delivered and supported in a family home environment, with a focus on supporting dedicated biological or foster parents and providing expert clinical support, so that exploited youth recover and heal from their experience.

“There is still a piece missing from the continuum of services available … foster parents who are formally trained and dedicated to working with survivors,” says Lindsey Phillips, Devereux Florida’s director of external affairs. Phillips explains that when foster parents are provided with specialized training and support from professionals, they create a safe and stable environment to heal and provide the opportunity for an individual to change their life for the better. Recently, funding from the State of Florida gave Devereux the opportunity to deliver these services and continue its collaborative effort in expanding capacity through foster parent recruitment.

“Foster parents go on to be lifelong parents to these children just like in traditional families,” says Kim Grabert, the statewide human trafficking prevention director for the Florida DCF. “These kids gain hope, and that is the key. If they can’t see hope by the time they leave our system of care, it’s probably not very likely they are going to see hope in their whole lives.” Grabert notes foster parents are provided with training and strategies that will help them deal with any issues that arise when dealing with children who have been abused and neglected.
Phillips concludes, “Thankfully, our state and community leaders have recognized the need to further develop resources to address this issue. I am proud to be part of a community with individuals and organizations so dedicated to protecting children.”

What Can I Do?
Get involved any way you can. The only way to end human trafficking is for organizations, community leaders and the public to work together.

1. Report abuse. If you suspect a child or teen is a victim, please call the Florida Abuse Hotline at 1-800-96-ABUSE. If you believe you are a victim of human trafficking or suspect an adult is a victim of human trafficking, please call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center at 1-800-373-7888.
2. Become a foster parent. If you are not able to foster a child, then encourage others to consider providing the opportunity to change someone’s life. Call 407-362-9280 or email FLFosterCare@devereuxfl.org.
3. Get involved. Learn more about the organizations dedicated to providing a path of healing for survivors of sexual exploitation:

Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health Florida (www.DevereuxFL.org)
Florida Department of Children and Families (www.MyFLFamilies.com)
Greater Orlando Human Trafficking Task Force (www.GOHTTF.org)
Zebra Coalition (www.ZebraYouth.org)

Recognize the Warning Signs
Some of the signs of human trafficking in youth include:

-Fearful, submissive, depressed or anxious behavior
-Withdrawn or lack of interest in preferred activities
-Avoiding eye contact, social interaction, and authority figures
-Frequent school absences and/or a sudden change in academic performance
-Questionable friends or the presence of a controlling friend/boyfriend
-Repeated runaways, gone or “working” for excessively long hours
-Showing signs of physical injuries and abuse
-Numerous inconsistencies on his/her story
-Unexplainable access to possessions such as a cell phone
-Lost sense of time and whereabouts
-Tattoos/”branding”

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Written by Kristi Gomen

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