Florida churches fight modern-day slavery

More than two decades ago, Dotti Groover-Skipper had her first brush with human trafficking, though back then it didn't have a name.

As owner of a nonprofit wellness company, she met a 13-year-old girl who was so disruptive in class that Groover-Skipper nearly barred her from the classroom until one day the girl showed up with her 4-year-old sister. The instructor felt strongly that something was amiss and reported her concerns.

An investigation found that the girls' grandmother was hiring them out for sex in return for drugs. The youngest girl had a sexually transmitted disease. 

Dotti Groover-Skipper headshot

"That rocked my world," says Groover-Skipper, now a certified candidate for ordination in the Florida Conference. "It shocked me to the core. I had no idea such evil existed."

The fight against all forms of human trafficking has been her mission since. Victims often are women, children and immigrants ensnared by forced labor, sexual exploitation and domestic servitude.

In 2008, with seed money from her church, Lake Magdalene UMC, Tampa, Groover-Skipper started HeartDance Foundation, a Christian outreach program that provides support for human trafficking victims, mentorships for at-risk youth and educational awareness. Volunteers visit strip clubs in Ybor City once a month, delivering cookies, cakes and devotional booklets. Spiritual retreats help women and children recover from trauma.

Other Methodist churches are stepping forward in the fight against human trafficking. Orange City UMC and St. John's UMC, Winter Haven, recently sponsored events to raise funds and increase community awareness of trafficking.

"The faith community is huge, and the faith community is really starting to rise up to these issues," says Groover-Skipper, who recently was appointed to the Florida Council on Human Trafficking. She also serves as state coordinator on human trafficking for The Salvation Army and as chairperson for the FREE (Fostering Resources to Empower and Engage) Community Campaign against Human Trafficking, West Florida. 

Mock brothel set up by students at Florida International University
Wesley Foundation students at Florida International University, Miami, help bring awareness to the prevalence of human trafficking by staging a mock brothel in 2012. File photo from UMNS.

Nationally, The United Methodist Church in the 2008 Book of Discipline committed the "use of every relevant gift of God" in the battle to end human trafficking. United Methodist Women several years ago formed the Human Trafficking Prevention and Awareness Team.

Florida ranks third in the nation for hotline calls about suspected trafficking, according to a 2011 report by the National Human Trafficking Resource Center. Miami and Tampa are among the top 20 human trafficking jurisdictions targeted by the U.S. Department of Justice. Various sources estimate the number of trafficking victims in the U.S. at 18,000 to 50,000 annually, with profits in the billions of dollars.

Orlando, Fort Lauderdale and Immokalee also have high numbers of human trafficking cases based on proactive law enforcement and prosecution in those areas, says Giselle Rodriguez, state outreach coordinator for the Florida Coalition Against Human Trafficking.

It is a statewide problem, she adds, but there is a desire in some places to "believe this crime doesn't happen in their own backyard."

Churches at times have been slow to respond or restricted efforts to combating the sex trade while ignoring the problem of forced labor, Rodriguez says, even though illegally forcing people to work is an everyday occurrence. She lists agriculture, hospitality, landscaping, door-to-door sales and carnivals among some of the more common places forced labor occurs.

Some people arrive here from foreign countries with legal work visas, only to become enslaved.

Rodriguez recalled a woman who worked 80 hours a week and received a negative $9 paycheck. "She actually owed the company that brought her into the country," she says. "They (immigrants) are literally held in debt bondage." 

Supply room at The Portico for collections to help human trafficking victims
Hyde Park UMC's downtown Tampa campus, The Portico, makes space for collections of clothing and hygiene products to be distributed to rescued human trafficking victims. Photo by B.C. Manion.

Since 2004, she says, about 600 people statewide have been rescued.

As of August 2012, more than 130 people in the Tampa Bay area had been arrested on human trafficking charges with nearly 50 convictions, according to the Clearwater/Tampa Bay Area Task Force on Human Trafficking. Nearly 200 people were identified as potential victims.

Churches seeking ways to help often form partnerships with nonprofits or social service agencies that work directly with victims.      

The Orlando-based Faith Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking is a coalition of area churches that coordinates efforts against human trafficking. It also is a partner with the Greater Orlando Human Trafficking Task Force.

Orange City UMC recently hosted “A Night of Freedom,” a fundraising banquet with silent and live auctions, music and a chef-prepared dinner. Proceeds benefited ConnectCity, a nonprofit and a Faith Alliance partner that provides housing and support for human-trafficking victims.

"We're a church with a big heart trying to do our part," says Cinda Lewis, church volunteer and event coordinator. "It's such a tragic, sad situation."

The Orange City congregation also participated in Faith Alliance's backpack giveaway program. About 100 backpacks were filled with donated items such as clothing, deodorant and brushes. "That's all things to get them started with new things in their lives," Lewis says. 

Crowd mingling at dinner event
Orange City UMC hosts "A Night of Freedom" fundraiser to raise money to help victims of human trafficking. Photo from Orange City UMC. 

In February, church members of St. John's UMC, Winter Haven, began selling T-shirts with a logo opposing human trafficking and a hotline number to call for help. Funds from the proceeds benefit efforts to help victims. And, as people wear the T-shirts in public places - airports, shopping malls and church - the phone number may be a lifeline to people in trouble.

"We've gotten a lot of response to the T-shirts," says church volunteer Judy Butcher. "We just want people to understand that it's right here in our backyard."

Butcher brought the issue to church members after she realized her granddaughter could have become a victim "if someone hadn't been very alert." Church members also attended a forum in Plant City and later organized their own forum in October attended by about 115 people.

The congregation also plans to work with The Porch Light program at Florida Baptist Children's Home, operated by director Michele Newsome. The nonprofit provides housing to children who have been victims of sex trafficking.

Beyond that, Butcher says, "We're just waiting to see God's guidance on what to do next."

-- Kathy Steele is a freelance writer based in Tampa.

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