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Senate panel begins work on human trafficking problem

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A Senate committee got a preview of what a coordinated statewide campaign against human trafficking might look at Monday, when a prosecutor detailed Miami’s “victim-centered” attack on the scourge.

Esther Jacobo, who runs the program for State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle, said prosecutors, support staff, victim specialists, and investigators within the office and other Miami-Dade police departments certainly prosecute traffickers.

But they also identify services gaps that make it more difficult to deliver children and young women and men from human traffickers.

“We need to strengthen our entire system of care for the victims,” Jacobo said following her testimony.

The Committee on Children, Families, and Elder Affairs gave her a sympathetic hearing.

“At the end of the day, we know there’s a crisis in the state of Florida — not only here, but across the nation — when it comes to human trafficking,” said Rene Garcia, the Hialeah Republican who chairs the panel.

He considers the Miami program among the best in the country.

”We want to make sure the best practices that are happening there, we can implement them statewide,” Garcia said.

“I hate to say we’re flying blind, but we are. We’re figuring it out as we go.”

Florida ranks No. 3 in the country for human trafficking, Jacobo told the committee.

Nearly half the identified victims were in four large counties — Miami-Dade, Hillsborough, Broward, and Orange, according to Cate Cantral, of the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability.

Identifying victims is difficult, Cantral said — they’re frequently controlled physically or psychologically by their traffickers; reluctant to talk to investigators; and have a high rate of running away from home or treatment.

State officials recently identified a 50 percent increase in human trafficking, largely attributed to improved training and attention to the problem,

Since the Miami-Dade program began in 2012, it has identified 534 victims. Of the females, 95.4 percent were minors. Of the males, 4.6 percent were minors. Jacobo put the age of entry into prostitution at 12 to 14 for girls, and 11 to 13 for boys.

The program emphasizes “trauma-informed prosecution,” Jacobo said — recognizing that stress to developing brains can produce irrational thinking, impaired short-term memory, inability to focus, and self-destructive behavior.

The Miami program participates — with state and local welfare programs and the University of South Florida — in a pilot project called Chance to target these behavior problems, Jacobo said.

A human trafficking child recovery project seeks to recover missing children and identify obstacles to finding them.

In addition, the Phoenix Project is a residential treatment and recovery program providing shelter, medical and psychological services, education and vocational training, and other services to 16 women.

Of the 264 verified child victims known to the state, Cantral said, 55 percent live with a parent and 16 percent were in residential care.

“The parents are trying to do whatever they can do, but the child continues to run and do these activities,” she said.

Victoria Vangalis Zepp, of the Florida Coalition for Children, left the hearing encouraged that Garcia would get something done.

”You can tell by the passion and the pain in his face, and every single one of these senators — they’re going to be moved to action.” Zepp said.

She added: “We’re going to need a lot of money.”

Michael Moline is a former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal and managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal. Previously, he reported on politics and the courts in Tallahassee for United Press International. He is a graduate of Florida State University, where he served as editor of the Florida Flambeau. His family’s roots in Jackson County date back many generations.

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