Editor’s Note: This is the first in a three-part series on human trafficking—a business of organized crime generating billions in profits at the expense of mostly young women and children—and efforts in Florida to combat it. Part one reports on grassroots efforts by faith-based organizations and nonprofits in the Tampa Bay area fighting to make a difference.
TAMPA—She couldn’t put her finger on it. Dotti Groover-Skipper said she just instinctively knew something wasn’t right.
|Dottie Groover-Skipper, a member and missionary of The United Methodist Church, said that God was calling her into action. She has worked for three decades to help rescue human trafficking survivors.|
It was 30 years ago. Groover-Skipper was teaching self-esteem classes to teen girls living in some of Tampa’s roughest neighborhoods.
“There was one 13-year-old girl who was a handful,” Groover-Skipper said. “She would constantly act out in class.”
One day the teen asked Groover-Skipper if she could bring her four-year-old sister to class with her. Hoping the sister’s presence would temper the girl’s behavior, Groover-Skipper consented, and the teen showed up to the next class with her little sister in hand.
Groover-Skipper immediately sensed that something was wrong.
“There were no physical signs other than extreme shyness,” she said. “But I believe the Holy Spirit was nudging me, so I decided to tell my employer.”
Welfare services promptly launched an investigation and discovered the girls’ grandmother had been selling the children for sex to fund her drug habit.
“I was horrified when I found out what these children had been going through,” Groover-Skipper said. “It broke my heart when they told me the four year old already had a sexually transmitted disease.”
At that time, Groover-Skipper had never heard the term “human trafficking.” She was oblivious to the fact that hundreds of thousands of men, women and children living in the United States were trapped in lives of forced manual labor and sex for money.
“I felt God was calling me to take action,” Groover-Skipper said. “He was telling me that it was my mission as a Christian to help stop this suffering.”
The mother of seven children and grandmother of two, Groover-Skipper has devoted the past three decades to rescuing human trafficking survivors, helping them regain control of their lives and advocating for harsher penalties for those who prey on disenfranchised adults and children.
“It’s an epidemic problem in our state,” she said. “Florida ranks third in the nation for the number of calls received by the National Human Trafficking Hotline.”
A member of and missionary with The United Methodist Church, Groover-Skipper now serves as the anti-trafficking coordinator for the Florida Divisional Headquarters of The Salvation Army, an organization that has been helping victims of prostitution for more than 125 years. Recognizing Groover-Skipper’s commitment to the cause, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi appointed her to the 15-member Statewide Council on Human Trafficking, created in 2014.
According to the International Labor Organization, there are 21 million victims of human trafficking around the world. It’s become the fastest-growing criminal industry, generating about $150 billion each year.
Because of its transient population, mild weather, year-round growing season and burgeoning tourist industry, Florida has become a hub for human trafficking activity, said Groover-Skipper.
“Many runaways head to Florida, and these kids living on the streets are prime targets for traffickers,” she said. “Traffickers are very good at building relationships and gaining the trust of these kids. Before they know it, they’re trapped in a situation they can’t escape.”
She said traffickers use a number of tactics to control their victims including getting them hooked on drugs so they become dependent on the trafficker for their next fix; giving them food, clothing and a place to stay to make them feel indebted to the trafficker; or subduing them with violence or threats of violence to themselves or loved ones.
Churches and nonprofits are forming grassroots programs to fight trafficking and provide awareness that the crimes are occurring.
Among them is Sun City Center United Methodist Church member June Wallace, who founded the Tampa Bay-based organization Community Campaign Against Human Trafficking in 2009. It joined together a number of faith and non-faith area nonprofits that are today known as the F.R.E.E. Network.
|A slum in the district of Airoli in Mumbai, India (formerly Bombay). The city was where Congresswoman Linda Smith first became aware of human trafficking during an official state visit in 1998. A longtime Methodist, Smith would later start a rescue group called Shared Hope International.|
“I was living in Largo and attending St. Paul United Methodist Church when I heard a speaker at a conference of a professional women’s organization I belong to,” Wallace said.
That speaker was former Washington State Congresswoman Linda Smith who became aware of the human trafficking problem during a state visit to what was then Bombay, India, in 1998. During the trip she visited Bombay’s notorious brothel district, where she saw girls as young as 12 years old imprisoned in cages while they were auctioned as sex slaves to the highest bidder.
“She was able to rescue many of these girls, but when she returned to the United States she discovered that there was just as much child sex trafficking taking place here. It just wasn’t as blatant,” Wallace said.
Wallace reached out to the Clearwater Police Department, which had already obtained a $450,000 U.S. Department of Justice grant in 2006 to form a human trafficking task force. With cooperation from the FBI, the Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough County sheriff’s offices and the St. Petersburg, Largo and Pinellas Park police departments, the task force began conducting raids on homes where human sex traffickers were suspected of holding people against their will.
The results of those raids, publicized in numerous reports in the press, shocked Tampa Bay residents.
“Some of these houses were in nice neighborhoods,” Wallace said. “And the neighbors never suspected this was going on.”
One raid took place in 2009 at a $600,000 waterfront home on Treasure Island.
The task force discovered a number of young women and underage girls imprisoned in the house. According to a press release issued by the task force, after being physically, mentally and sexually abused, the girls were forced to dance and prostitute themselves at local men’s clubs.
“Sex trafficking was especially rampant in tourist areas with a lot of hotels,” Wallace said. “There were crew bosses who would smuggle women across the border, and then force these women who couldn’t speak English to work in the hotels during the day and work as prostitutes at night. The regular hotel staff had no idea this was going on.”
Head of the task force, Clearwater Detective James McBride, welcomed Wallace’s assistance.
She continued her battle against human trafficking when she moved from Largo to Sun City Center in 2010. Working with the Sun City Center United Methodist Church, she established the Campaign Against Human Trafficking – SouthShore.
Sun City Center is a retirement community that is located in the middle of an agricultural area in south Hillsborough County with a large population of migrant farmworkers.
“All around us are some very poor areas,” she said. “The nearest community is Wimauma. Only 20 percent of the children at Wimauma Elementary School can read at a third-grade level by the time they finish third grade. And the community has no youth center to give kids something to do after school. Their lack of education and lack of structured activities and supervision makes them very vulnerable.”
With Sun City Center UMC spearheading the effort, Wallace more recently led creating a coalition that included nearly every faith community in Sun City Center. The coalition includes an Episcopal church, two Catholic churches, a Presbyterian church, a synagogue, a Baptist church and a United Community church.
“God has blessed our church with this mission,” she said. “We started with a speaker’s bureau to raise awareness, and now we do fundraising for shelters for survivors of human trafficking, provide a curriculum for the schools and have an advocacy program to change the laws.”
Wallace is now starting a similar faith coalition in the east Hillsborough County community of Brandon.
“I envision building alliances throughout communities throughout Florida,” she said.
--D’Ann Lawrence White is a freelance journalist based in Valrico.
Editor’s Note: Part two of this series, “Trafficking: It's 'right here in our backyard,'" will post Tuesday, August 8. The story will include an illustration of professional artist Jennifer Houdeshell, who uses her art to raise awareness of human trafficking.