Or­ange’s hu­man-traf­fick­ing cri­sis shel­ter at ca­pac­ity

Ac­cu­sa­tions be­ing taken more se­ri­ously in #MeToo cli­mate

Orlando Sentinel - - FRONT PAGE - By Stephen Hu­dak Staff Writer

Or­ange County’s first cri­sis shel­ter for hu­man-traf­fick­ing vic­tims is full — and ad­vo­cates say that’s a good thing.

It means vul­ner­a­ble women are seek­ing and get­ting help now for a prob­lem that many peo­ple had once doubted ex­isted in Cen­tral Florida, said To­mas Lares, chair­man of the Greater Or­lando Hu­man Traf­fick­ing Task Force.

“I like to com­pare it to the whole ‘me, too’ move­ment,” he said, re­fer­ring to the na­tional push for so­cial change that arose last year af­ter pub­lic rev­e­la­tions de­tail­ing sex­ual ha­rass­ment of women in Hol­ly­wood and else­where.

“Why did it take so long, so many years for peo­ple to ad­mit this was hap­pen­ing? And when they fi­nally did, we didn’t be­lieve them. We said, ‘This can’t be hap­pen­ing in our com­mu­nity,’” Lares said. “But it was and is.”

Or­ange County com­mis­sion­ers were briefed this week on the progress of a tax­payer-funded pi­lot pro­ject in­tended to pro­vide emer­gency ser­vices and short-term res­i­den­tial shel­ter to women res­cued from sex-trade traf­fick­ers.

The shel­ter, the state’s first ex­clu­sively funded by tax­pay­ers, opened in late Jan­uary. The county has pledged nearly $2 mil­lion to the pro­ject, in­clud­ing $750,000 in the 2018-19

pro­posed bud­get.

The 10-bed home, lo­cated at a con­fi­den­tial site to shield its res­i­dents, has no va­can­cies now, less than six months af­ter open­ing, said Tracy Salem, man­ager of the county’s youth and fam­ily ser­vices di­vi­sion, which over­sees the pro­gram. She said it has helped 25 women, pro­vid­ing them with a safe haven to get well and off drugs.

Most traf­fick­ing sur­vivors stay about a month, Salem said.

Many are re­ferred to the cen­ter by Or­ange County Jail staffers, who find pos­si­ble vic­tims while con­duct­ing as­sess­ments dur­ing the in­take process for new in­mates.

Oth­ers ar­rive at the shel­ter through Florida Abo­li­tion­ist, the Win­ter Park­based non­profit group that ad­vo­cates for traf­ficked vic­tims and works with the mul­ti­lin­gual Na­tional Hu­man Traf­fick­ing Re­source Cen­ter hot­line (888-373-7888) and the Florida Abuse Hot­line (800-96-ABUSE.)

The Metropoli­tan Bureau of In­ves­ti­ga­tion, an in­ter-agency vice task force in Cen­tral Florida, looked into 52 com­plaints of hu­man traf­fick­ing last year and ar­rested nine peo­ple, in­clud­ing Tyquar­ius Lebby, 24, charged with en­gag­ing in sex­ual ac­tiv­ity with an un­der­age girl and with hu­man traf­fick­ing of a child for com­mer­cial sex­ual ac­tiv­ity.

The lat­ter felony charge car­ries a pos­si­ble life prison sen­tence.

He has pleaded not guilty.

Act­ing on a tip in De­cem­ber, MBI agents found pic­tures of a 16-year-old girl in sex­u­ally sug­ges­tive poses in Or­lando-area ads posted on a clas­si­fied-ad­ver­tis­ing web­site, which was then shut down in April by fed­eral law-en­force­ment au­thor­i­ties in­ves­ti­gat­ing al­le­ga­tions the in­ter­net site al­lowed users to post ads for sex ser­vices in­volv­ing mi­nors.

Agents then found the teen at an Or­ange Blos­som Trail mo­tel. Agents said she had a bruised eye, courtesy of Lebby, who had rented a room at the mo­tel.

He told her, “You’re locked in now be­cause I beat your ass,” an af­fi­davit al­leged.

Salem said 49 ju­ve­niles, in­clud­ing a 2-year-old, were res­cued from traf­fick­ing sit­u­a­tions in Or­ange County last year.

The tod­dler’s traf­ficker was a fam­ily mem­ber, she said.

The state De­part­ment of Chil­dren and Fam­ily Ser­vices typ­i­cally pro­vides care, ser­vices and shel­ter for ju­ve­nile vic­tims.

The county’s cri­sis shel­ter serves adult fe­male vic­tims of traf­fick­ing.

Ser­vices in­clude men­tal­health and sub­stance­abuse coun­sel­ing be­cause traf­fick­ing sur­vivors of­ten are ma­nip­u­lated with heroin and other street drugs.

“This is, in essence, a start­ing point for these vic­tims,” Or­ange County Com­mis­sioner Pete Clarke, an ad­vo­cate for the county traf­fick­ing shel­ter, said Tues­day. “The true re­cov­ery takes many, many, many years. It’s a tough road for them.”

More than 300 cases of hu­man traf­fick­ing were re­ported in Florida last year, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional Hu­man Traf­fick­ing Re­source Cen­ter, putting the state be­hind only Cal­i­for­nia and Texas.

Philip Toal, who works with traf­fick­ing sur­vivors at the county’s cri­sis shel­ter, said the women need a safe place to heal.

“When we get a call, we can get a woman off the street in­stan­ta­neously,” he said.

Toal said the shel­ter has a wait­ing list of 17 women.

Ex­perts say Or­lando’s tourist and tran­sient pop­u­la­tion makes the re­gion sus­cep­ti­ble to traf­fick­ers, who of­ten prey on poor and drug-ad­dicted women and chil­dren.

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