One of the most surprising results of WGA’s work in mental health in Northeast Florida is the extent of sex trafficking in our region as well as nationally. Several local agencies that provide mental health services to girls report that a number of their clients describe being trafficked, often multiple times. While these girls are sometimes labeled “child prostitutes,” we have learned that they are in fact the unwitting and unwilling victims of criminals and criminal organizations, and are routinely bought, sold, drugged and violated.
There is nothing like a tale of serially abused children to galvanize a group of passionate women. Once we learned of this issue, both our Education and Advocacy Committees started creating programs to teach us more. In February 2015, we heard from Dr. Katariina Rosenblatt, a lawyer from Orlando who was sold twice by the time she was 17 despite her best instincts and resistance. Her testimony as a survivor-mentor was eye-opening and upsetting, but also motivating.
Joan Van Vleck, a former President of WGA, gave testimony in Tallahassee in support of a bill protecting victims of sex trafficking while appropriately treating the “johns” as criminals. The Safe Harbor Act eventually was enacted. However, we later learned through a grantee agency, The Delores Barr Weaver Policy Center, that the central protections of Safe Harbor were under attack in Tallahassee. Through our website and social media, we rallied support for those who supported the original bill and, along with a number of individuals and organizations, were able to protect Safe Harbor.
During the 2015 Legislation Session arrived, WGA took an interest in two additional sex trafficking issues.
(1) Funding the implementation of a network of mental health and other social services resulting from the Safe Harbor Act. See our Letter to the Editor to the Florida Times Union in support of this funding. Funding is still under discussion.
(2) A bill with bipartisan support required the display of human trafficking awareness posters (including the national hotline number 1-888-373-7888) in thousands of Florida locations. Our Advocacy Committee moved into high gear and encouraged our members to be heard. We were gratified to learn the bill passed and was signed by the Governor.