Trafficking: It's 'right here in our backyard'




Editor’s Note: This is the second story in a three-part series on human trafficking, and it reports on how raising awareness is a key part in the fight against trafficking.

ORANGE CITY—Surrounded by Florida’s picturesque beaches and exotic plant life, professional artist and illustrator Jennifer Houdeshell has no shortage of inspiration for her paintings.

Jennifer Houdeshell, a teacher, artist and illustrator, depicts the victims of trafficking she encounters through HOPE (Helpers of People Enslaved). The ministry of Orange City UMC now includes eight churches of varied denominations. In her words, "This isn't just a Methodist problem...we're all in this together."

But instead of focusing on the colorful foliage and stunning sunsets, Houdeshell’s most recent works are stark black-and-white portrayals revealing a seamy side of Florida the tourists rarely see.

Titled “Living a Nightmare,” “Despair,” “Enslaved” and “Terror in the Night,” her portraits depict the victims of human trafficking that she has encountered through her work with HOPE (Helpers of People Enslaved), a mission of Orange City United Methodist Church in Central Florida.

“I wanted to put a face to human trafficking,” Houdeshell said of her artwork. “People think it only happens in Asia and Eastern Europe, but it’s a huge problem right here in this country, right here in our backyard.”

The headlines in her local newspaper bear this out.

“In my own city of Deltona, a 22-year-old mother was arrested for procuring children for prostitution,” Houdeshell said.

According to an article in the Daytona Beach News-Journal, the woman offered refuge to runaway teens, then advertised them for prostitution on the internet.

“Sex trafficking is an epidemic. It’s happening in every town,” Houdeshell said. “According to the Center for Exploited Children, more than 100,000 American children are being prostituted. The average age is 13.”

A school teacher for 17 years, Houdeshell first became aware of the scope of the problem when she attended a national teacher’s convention on child labor and human trafficking in Washington, D.C., in 2000.

On the other side of the state, Tampa resident Beth Potter, the Gulf Central District's congregational vitality specialist for the Florida Conference, has been rallying volunteers for a similar speaker’s bureau on Florida’s west coast.

“People need to be attuned to what’s happening around them,” she said.

Recently, she said, a flight attendant alerted the pilot of her aircraft after noticing a young passenger exhibiting signs of distress and fear of the older man seated next to her. When the plane landed, law enforcement was waiting. The trafficker was arrested, and the victim was rescued.

“I specialize in training emergency room nurses and doctors to spot potential victims,” Potter said. “But there’s a big need to train employees at airports, cruise lines, railroad and bus stations, shopping malls, hotels and schools.”

Dotti Groover-Skipper of Tampa, a Methodist and anti-trafficking coordinator for The Salvation Army’s Florida Divisional Headquarters, said Florida’s tourism industry is the unintentional cause of much of the human trafficking activity in the state. Events such as the annual Bike Week at Daytona Beach are magnets for traffickers, she said.

Thousands gather for Super Bowl XLI in Miami. According to Dotti Groover-Skipper, a Methodist elder and anti-trafficking coordinator, major sporting events such as this are often prime targets for traffickers, leading to hundreds of arrests.

“Florida ranks third in the nation for human trafficking behind California and Texas,” Groover-Skippers said.

One of the biggest venues for human trafficking activity is the Super Bowl.

“When large groups of people gather for major events like the Super Bowl, human trafficking increases,” Groover-Skipper said. “These big sporting events where a lot of men are gathered are prime targets for pimps and sex traffickers.”

During Super Bowl LI in February, 23 law enforcement agencies in 14 states took part in a massive sting operation that resulted in the arrest of 522 sex traffickers and johns.

In Houston, home of this year’s Super Bowl, police arrested nine sex traffickers and 183 johns, including two firefighters and a retired police officer.

In anticipation of the 2021 Super Bowl, which has been relocated from Los Angeles to Tampa, Groover-Skipper said The Salvation Army has obtained a federal grant to combat human trafficking.

“We want to use the funds to launch an all-out effort to educate Tampa Bay about the human trafficking problem and signs that someone may be a victim,” she said.

“Those signs can be very subtle,” Potter said.

“The perpetrators look for individuals who are marginalized, young people who have low self-esteem,” she said.

“This could be any of our children. Pasco County recently arrested a trafficker who was trolling for victims at an ice cream shop. We can’t put our kids in a protective bubble, so they need to be smart and we need to be smart.”

Runaways are often targeted by traffickers because they are immature, frightened and alone. There are currently 30,000 to 40,000 runaways living on the streets in Florida, said Potter.

“They’re usually contacted by a trafficker within 48 hours of being on the street,” she said. “They’re lured with promises of shelter or simply grabbed off the streets. Then they’re groomed, repeatedly raped, hooked on drugs or beaten down to control them.”

Greed is the motivation. She said a single victim can earn a trafficker $200,000 to $400,000 a year.

“It’s more lucrative than selling drugs,” she said. “Once you sell the drugs, they’re gone; but you can sell these victims over and over.”

Groover-Skipper said she’s worked with victims who were forced to have sex 20 to 30 times a night.

While faith organizations can raise money and awareness, real change needs to take place at the legislative level, she said.

“Victims of trafficking often have PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) on a par with soldiers who’ve been in combat,” said Groover-Skipper.

Others develop Stockholm Syndrome, in which they develop feelings of trust and affection for their captors. Once rescued, they attempt to escape the shelter or recruit others to join them.

“And every survivor I’ve worked with has had severe medical issues,” Groover-Skipper said.

“They’re emotionally and physically scarred,” said Potter. “They come to us malnourished, pregnant, in need of medical care including surgery, dental care, treatment for sexually transmitted diseases and drug addictions. Very often they’re tattooed by their captors. They don’t know what love is and they don’t trust anyone. They lack social skills and have a hard time functioning around others.”

But Potter said this doesn’t discourage faith organizations from helping.

“I know of one church that donates space to temporarily house the victims after a police raid,” she said. “That way they’re not re-victimized at a police station. There’s another group that teaches victims to make jewelry that they can sell to raise money. It may seem like a small gesture, but these efforts allow the faith community to engage with and develop relationships with these victims, to show them God’s love.”

--D’Ann Lawrence White is a freelance journalist based in Valrico.

Editor’s Note: In part three of this series, posting Friday, August 11, State Representative Ross Spano, R-Riverview, explains his fight for justice and tougher laws against traffickers in Florida.

« Part One: "Grassroots faith-based efforts combat human trafficking" 


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