Human Trafficking Symposium Raises Community Awareness of Invisible Problem
Program Joined Support Groups with Law Enforcement, Churches
Last updated 10/28/2021 at 8:35pm
"Human trafficking is modern-day slavery."
With these words the One More Child organization describes the silently pervasive problem of human trafficking, which involves both adults and children as victims, and groups as diverse as gangs, families and religious organizations as perpetrators.
In a six-hour forum sponsored by One More Child, the Lake Wales Care Center, local area pastors, and the Lake Wales Police and Fire Departments, some 80 participants heard expert testimony and advice about the extent of the problem and how to rein it in.
"It's not that all victims are kept in a dark dungeon," said symposium speaker Kadian Parchment in a conversation with LakeWalesNews.Net. "Many attend school, have friends, but they are intimidated by a predator who has groomed them. They get a call and know that they have to be at a bus stop at a certain time, because they are going out of town for the weekend."
Although missing and exploited children are often the focus of publicity, the larger problem may be abuse through coercion even by family members. Parents, uncles or other 'power figures' can use threats of punishment, including food or shelter, to force victims into virtual slavery.
Care Center employee Pete Piotrowski said that the organization's real awareness of the problem came when they encountered a pregnant woman who had been trafficked for sex.
Piotrowski, a former investigator for the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, said that many times it's difficult to break the bonds between victim and perpetrator due to emotional or financial dependency or just fear. "The Care Center community needs to help fix this," he added. In recognition of the problem the Care Center has created a Human Trafficking Resource Guide which they are making available to the community.
Recognizing a victim might be as simple as watching how they react to others. Avoiding eye contact, being closely escorted by a controlling individual, or looking particularly disheveled can be clues that an abuse situation is occurring. A child escorted from a vehicle to a highway restroom by an adult who waits at the door can be a sign of such trafficking as well as that of an over-protective parent. Determining the difference requires close observation.
"Part of the problem is that (the victims) often don't trust law enforcement" said Officer Edward Palmer of the Lake Wales Police Department, an attendee at the conference. "We want the bad guys, obviously, but our role requires us to be direct, be detailed," he said, which is not the effective means of persuasion necessary to gather evidence from victims.
Elyssa Riggs, an advocate for One More Child, a conference sponsor, said that her program operates safe group homes, and works to bring a "mobile, wrap around program into the community." Director Rob Quam calls that an important part of the organizations' mission, and the reasoning behind organizing the symposium.
Piotrowski pointed out that children playing video games are often targeted online without the knowledge of their parents. "They get a friend request, and then a week later that person is asking about where they live, asking for photos. It might be innocent but how do you know?"
"Soon they're telling your child that "your parents don't understand you, I'm your only real friend." He added that his own daughter was groomed by "a woman from North Carolina for over a year" before he realized it. He pointed out that "there are software tools like Boomerang that can be installed to track who is communicating with your child online."
Parchment added that "Florida is a top-three location for reported cases" of human trafficking. "We need to keep this from becoming a crisis."