Otto: Joshua House a refuge for trafficking victims
Given the situation, what is happening at Joshua House is a good thing. But the “what is happening’’ part is discouraging. Detective James McBride, director of the “Clearwater/Tampa Bay Area Task Force on Human Trafficking,’’ was one of two speakers at the annual Child Abuse Awareness Luncheon in support of Joshua House. The luncheon took place in a packed ballroom at the old downtown Hyatt Regency, which is now being called the Tampa Hotel. As usual, included in the crowd were elected officials, law enforcement officers, judges, lawyers, first responders and anyone involved with a growing and vicious increase in human trafficking. McBride followed Holly Austin Smith, a survivor of the sex trafficking trade. Florida ranks No. 3 in the United States in the numbers, and the Tampa Bay region is the No. 1 area in Florida for human trafficking.
Her story of being a vulnerable teenage girl swept up into the sex trade by a slick organization that forced her into prostitution was disturbing enough. Today, with the blossoming of social media and its ease of accessibility to young people, the crisis is expanding.
One of the problems associated with the crisis is the question of what to do with victims if you are able to recover them from the pimps and traffickers? Many are young girls with nowhere to go, fearful for their lives and with no support.
To that end, Joshua House made the decision to step in and become that last bulwark for these victims. It was not an easy decision and it is one that has forced the shelter to bring in armed guards to ensure the safety of these victims.
Joshua House is the result of a dream by community leaders to build a safe haven for the many abused and neglected children of our community. I can remember in 1992 standing out in the woods near Lutz with Bob Thomas and Dottie Berger (McKinnon) where Thomas said their dream would become a reality.
It did. Over the years Joshua House has served nearly 1,500 children. It has been one of the outstanding civic success stories anywhere.
Their decision to open up the facility to the young women recovered by law enforcement provides the only real shelter for them in the state. It has not come without a cost. They have seen pimps and traffickers who were bold enough to come to the facility and try to gain entrance. Now there are armed security guards on the grounds and the area is safe and secure.
None of this has anything to do with solving the problem. Fortunately, the task force that McBride directs coordinates with local law enforcement, the FBI and other national organizations. McBride suggested that if solutions are found, they will only come with community support. It is going to take merchants and anyone who sees young girls in what appear to be questionable situations reporting what they see to law enforcement. Like so many things these days, it is being aware of situations and then being responsible.
Most of these girls are being held against their will, threatened with physical punishment and moved quickly from place to place. What Joshua House is doing is a wonderful step, but only one step in the right direction.