Many don’t think Tampa Bay or St. Petersburg when we hear about human trafficking, but the reality is it is a growing problem in this area and many Florida communities. In fact, it is growing throughout the country.
“Traffickers don’t necessarily have one home base. They move around,” explains detective Jeff Gosnell of the St. Petersburg Police Department. “They look for areas with tourism and big sporting events that are likely to have great potential for customers—like Tampa Bay. Events like the Super Bowl, which is coming back to Tampa in 2021, are a big draw for traffickers.” Traffickers and their victims live in and operate out of motels throughout the area, Gosnell explains to his audience of medical professionals recently at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital.
Hospitals, specifically emergency centers, are one of the few places a carefully watched, often teenage, victim has a chance of being spotted and possibly helped to get out of a bad situation, which is why Johns Hopkins All Children’s and the St. Petersburg Police Department partnered to offer tips on how to recognize the minors who have fallen into this trap.
The term human trafficking itself is often misunderstood. “It is frequently confused with prostitution, but it isn’t that,” Gosnell explains. “It’s more about isolation and an abuse cycle.” Human trafficking is defined as the transporting, soliciting, recruiting, harboring, enticing, manipulating or obtaining another for the purpose of exploitation. Victims are often teenagers, and are carefully selected because they are in vulnerable home situations such as foster care, or they may be homeless, making them easy targets.
Although the problem is believed to be much greater than numbers indicate, nearly 1,900 reports of human trafficking were made in Florida in 2016, a staggering 54 percent increase from the previous year, according to the Florida Department of Children and Families.
They are lured and romanced until they find themselves wanting to leave the situation, that’s when the abuse, intimidation and threats begin in this predictable cycle that often involves traffickers getting their victims addicted to drugs in order to better control them.
Trafficking rings are hard to find, but because their victims are often underage and frequently end up in an emergency center from abuse or even drug overdoses, detectives Gosnell and his partner, Marion Guess, explained many of the signs to look for in a hospital setting.
Victims may not be shackled or chained, but they are completely dependent on their abusers to stay alive. They rarely have money, cell phones or contact with the outside world and are virtually always accompanied by a “handler” who speaks for them in public. They may arrive at an emergency center with additional signs of abuse, visible bruising, an inability to make eye contact and a general sense of fear.
These are all signs for medical professionals to watch for. The detectives pointed out that each situation is different, but you don’t want to make a move that puts the victim in further jeopardy. Call a non-emergency number at the St. Petersburg Police Department (727-893-7780) or the National Human Trafficking Hotline (1-888-373-7888) ideally while the victim is still close by.
Detectives also had a tip for parents: Watch your children’s online activity carefully. Traffickers frequent social media and gaming sites as a way of building egos, creating trust and arranging to meet their targets.
“We got a lot out of this talk today,” says Radek Hoffmann, R.N., clinical manager of the Johns Hopkins All Children’s Emergency Center, who attended the event. “I’ve been to talks like this before, but it’s good to attend refreshers. I learned something new today about keeping an eye out for tattoos that can be used to brand trafficking victims.” Tattoos often include the initials of the trafficker as a sign of ownership.
“We will take back everything we learned and share it with our emergency teams,” adds Elise Kolosvary, R.N., clinical manager. “We want people to have the phone numbers to call, and know what to do in a situation where they suspect someone is possibly being victimized.”
By partnering with the St. Petersburg Police Department, Johns Hopkins All Children’s is hoping to assist in identifying these victims, get them out of their current situation and find them the help and counseling they will need to start their lives over.