TAMPA — The victims are as young as 12 and come from gated communities and foster homes; they often have low self esteem or histories of sexual abuse.
Dozens of children have been rescued from child sex traffickers in the Tampa area in the last few years, investigators say, and tips keep coming in.
A recent report by a national tracking organization, the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, found a fourfold increase in child sex trafficking federal prosecutions nationwide since 2008. And while federal prosecutions for the Tampa area are actually down, officials say that doesn't mean the activity or investigations have decreased.
“We're seeing a huge uptick in these kinds of cases,” said Homeland Security Investigations Agent Bill Williger, who specializes in human trafficking investigations, who said the general public is becoming more aware of this type of activity.
Just last month, a 22-year-old St. Petersburg woman, Keosha Renee Jones, was arrested on federal charges she coerced two 14-year-old girls to have sex with men for money.
Also last month, the FBI rescued three Tampa area children from sex traffickers as part of a national operation that rescued 105 child victims.
In March, a 29-year old man was sentenced to life in federal prison for forcing girls into prostitution. Among his victims was a 15-year-old he kidnapped in Ybor City. A federal prosecutor said the defendant, Weylin O. Rodriguez, treated his victims as property, beating them, branding them with tattoos and controlling what they ate and where they slept.
Two men were found guilty of selling the sexual services of a 14-year-old girl on Craigslist, advertising her as a “Super Bowl Special,” when the football championship was played in Tampa in 2009.
Clearwater Police Detective James McBride directs the Clearwater/Tampa Bay Area Human Trafficking Task Force, which was created in 2006 after hearing from local Hispanics that the problem exists in the community.
Since 2008, he said, the task force has recovered 37 child victims of sex traffickers. The FBI's Innocence Lost task force has rescued more than 100 victims in Central Florida, primarily in the Tampa area, since 2009, according to spokesman Dave Couvertier.
McBride estimates the Clearwater task for receives between five and seven tips a week about possible child sex trafficking, although not every tip is good.
The investigations can be challenging and time consuming. Williger said he's been working one case for 2 1/2 years.
“If you look at, you have to really dig deep to find this,” McBride said. “Nobody comes in and self reports, 'I'm a 15 year old girl. I was prostituted.'''
Leads tend to come from social workers, neighbors, people in the community or when a law enforcement officer realizes the runaway child he has just encountered has something else going on.
“Everybody thinks it's just the runaway and throwaway kids,” McBride said. “That is not true. We have cases where they have mom and dad living there, mom and stepdad. They come from a decent household.”
McBride said traffickers are using online social networking to recruit kids, befriending them, providing them attention or gifts and ultimately luring them into prostitution.
“When you allow your child online, you might as well just let him walk down the street and go wherever he wants,” McBride said. “If you allow a child to get online, he's open to the world.”
Child sex traffickers are similar to pedophiles, McBride said, except pedophiles are motivated by sex and traffickers are after money.
“It's the same grooming process,” he said. “It's just for different reasons.”
McBride said one reason federal prosecutions may be down locally is more cases are being tried in state court because the state law has changed to reflect federal law. Earlier this year, Florida enacted the “Safe Harbor Act,” which aims to protect young sex trafficking victims.
Child prostitutes used to be treated as criminals, said Williger, who said law enforcement now better understands they are victims of their pimps. Adult prostitutes also can be regarded as human trafficking victims if they are coerced or began their work for a pimp when they were minors, Williger said.
“I think society has really gained an awareness that these kids that are being prostituted are victims,” said Karen Gable, the assistant U.S. attorney who coordinate's Project Safe Childhood for the Middle District of Florida.
The state's new Safe Harbor law requires the Division of Children and Families to provide services to the child victims, said McBride, who said DCF previously didn't get involved unless parents were trafficking their own children. DCF also isrequired to compile statistical information, and numbers will start to become available statewide around the end of the year.