First safe house in Florida for boys forced into sex trade

Miami Herald - - FRONT PAGE -

TAMPA — The vast ma­jor­ity of chil­dren who are sold or forced into the sex trade are girls. But not all. Boys made up 7 per­cent of child vic­tims in Florida, ac­cord­ing to a re­cent state study. But some care work­ers es­ti­mate that num­ber could be as high as 10 to 15 per­cent.

But un­til this month, Florida had not even one safe bed for boys res­cued from traf­fick­ing.

A new safe home in west­cen­tral Florida, which for­mally opened Tuesday, will be one of only a hand­ful in the na­tion that cater to boys. It’s run by the U.S. In­sti­tute Against Hu­man Traf­fick­ing, a non­profit group based in Tampa. The home has al­ready ad­mit­ted its first boy.

“It’s a big day for the boys, young kids who have been traf­ficked who pre­vi­ously have not had any­where they could go suit­able for their needs,” said Ge­off Rogers, the group’s chief ex­ec­u­tive. “There is an ab­so­lute dire need for hous­ing for these kids and their care across the coun­try.”

The lo­ca­tion of the home is be­ing kept se­cret to pro­tect vic­tims from their traf­fick­ers. So for its for­mal rib­bon-cutting cer­e­mony Tuesday, the in­sti­tute trans­ported a bed­room set from the home to the Yan­kees Pavil­ion at Ge­orge Stein­bren­ner Field. Among those present were U.S. Rep. Gus Bili­rakis. R-Palm Har­bor, Pasco County Sher­iff Chris Nocco and Univer­sity of South Florida pres­i­dent Judy Gen­shaft.

On the bed sat a bas­ket­ball, a back­pack and a cush­ion with the words “The best is yet to come,” in­tended as a mes­sage of hope.

Bili­rakis said Florida has the third high­est num­ber of traf­fick­ing vic­tims in the United States, be­hind Cal­i­for­nia and Texas. He asked those at the cer­e­mony to lobby for a con­gres­sional bill due to be de­bated in Septem­ber that will make $2 bil­lion avail­able for in­ves­tiga­tive pro­grams tar­get­ing hu­man traf­fick­ing.

“We have to help them out of this vi­cious life of ex­ploita­tion,” he said.

The home, which has just five beds, will make only a small dent in the state’s short­age of shel­ter for ex­ploited chil­dren.

A re­ported 356 chil­dren were the vic­tims of com­mer­cial sex­ual ex­ploita­tion in Florida last year but the state had only 28 safe beds, ac­cord­ing to a re­port by the Of­fice of Pro­gram Pol­icy Anal­y­sis and Gov­ern­ment Ac­count­abil­ity.

That’s de­spite the state mak­ing $8.1 mil­lion avail­able be­tween 2014 and 2016 for non­profit groups to ex­pand ser­vices.

That in­cluded $250,000 that the Florida Depart­ment of Chil­dren and Fam­i­lies gave to the traf­fick­ing in­sti­tute to­ward the home for boys. The home cost about $600,000 to build, in­clud­ing the pur­chase of land.

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