Editor’s Note: This is the third story in a three-part series on human trafficking, and it examines the efforts by a state representative to make a difference on the legal front.
Like Dotti Groover-Skipper of Tampa, State Representative Ross Spano, R-Riverview, said he was oblivious to the scope of the problem until he was contacted by fellow Florida State University law school student Brent Woody after his election to the House in 2012. Woody had just launched the West Florida Center for Trafficking Advocacy, which provides pro-bono legal representation for trafficking survivors.
|State Representative Russ Spano, R-Riverview, stated that many of the victims of human trafficking come from our own social welfare system including former foster children.|
“Brent really opened my eyes,” Spano said. “I have four kids of my own. When I was confronted with the reality that this is happening in my own backyard and my children could be potentially exposed, I felt I needed to step in. On a spiritual level, I believe God placed me here to help.”
Human trafficking is the third largest international crime industry behind illegal drugs and arms trafficking, he noted. In the United States, between 14,500 and 17,500 people are enslaved and trafficked into the country each year, generating $32 billion for the gangs, organized crime syndicates and individuals engaged in sex trafficking.
Among the first bills Spano sponsored was legislation to allow the courts to erase the criminal convictions of trafficking victims.
“Many of these victims have been arrested on prostitution or drug charges because of things their trafficker forced them to do,” said Spano. “Once they’re rescued, they have a hard time starting over because of their felony record. This law allows them to petition the courts to wipe their record and give them a clean slate.”
Spano now works closely with nonprofit organizations around the state to combat the trafficking problem through new legislation.
“Almost without exception, they are all faith-based organizations that are providing safe places for victims to go, providing resources to help them get back on their feet and developing relationships to convince them that they matter and that God loves them,” Spano said.
“Ross Spano has been a true champion for the cause,” said Groover-Skipper.
In 2014 the freshman legislator from Riverview successfully passed legislation that increased the penalties for sex trafficking and pimping, including a 25-year mandatory prison term for any conviction for trafficking underage and mentally disabled individuals.
Spano is also targeting the bank accounts of traffickers. According to a report at Human Rights First, traffickers often use their banks, credit cards and financial institutions to house and transport illicit profits.
“So we’ve increased the penalties for solicitation,” Spano said.
Those arrested on a first solicitation offense are now required to do 100 hours of community service and attend a so-called “john schools,” where they’re forced to face the victims of prostitution and sex trafficking to understand the consequences of their actions. A second offense is a third-degree felony, resulting in mandatory jail time.
Spano also appropriated funding for shelters and a network of mentor coordinators, many of whom are survivors of human trafficking. He noted that mentors work one-on-one with victims to help them get back on their feet.
“Currently, we have six or seven safe houses,” Spano said. “In fact, we just got the certificate of occupancy for the first safe house in the nation for boys, who make up 10 to 15 percent of the trafficking victims. We still have a ways to go, but these increased funds have helped victims significantly over the past three years.”
He said finding the funding for more shelters is his biggest hurdle.
“Because of the nature of the trauma they’ve experienced, these victims need specialized care,” he said. “These shelters require highly trained individuals who can deal with the victims’ unique behavioral, medical and psychological issues. We simply don’t have enough of these shelters.
“The sad part is most of the victims come from our own social welfare system,” said Spano. “The majority of these victims are former foster children who feel lost and unloved. They’re drawn to anyone who gives them attention. And these traffickers are very adept at spotting these vulnerable young people.”
One photograph taken by a local task force was especially heartbreaking. It showed the bedroom where a 14-year-old girl was held against her will. The only furnishings in the room were a bed and a side table containing a tube of K-Y jelly and paper towels. On the floor was a pair of spiked high heels and a tattered teddy bear.
“Our goal is to make people aware of the problem,” said professional artist and illustrator Jennifer Houdeshell, “by empowering them with knowledge of the techniques used by traffickers and signs that someone may be a victim of human trafficking.”
--D’Ann Lawrence White is a freelance journalist based in Valrico.
Part Two: Trafficking: 'It's right here in our backyard'
Part One: Grassroots faith-based efforts combat human trafficking