TAMPA — With the adoption of the Safe Harbor Act in January, the state of Florida officially declared prostituted children are victims, not criminals.
No longer would these children be charged with prostitution and sent to juvenile detention. Instead, the law envisioned the creation of safe houses where sex trafficking victims could be protected from their pimps and given the therapy and treatment they need to recover from the trauma of abuse and brainwashing.
The safe houses would be funded through an increase in fines — adding $4,500 to the old fine of $500 — for convicted johns.
But more than eight months after the law went into effect, the state has collected just two fines, providing only $9,000 for sex trafficking victims.
And according to the Department of Children & Families, there are only two safe houses in the state with a total of 12 beds. None are currently operating in the Tampa Bay area, the top area in the state for sex trafficking recruitment. In the past few years, authorities say, law enforcement has rescued scores of child sex trafficking victims in this area alone.
“The problem is we don’t have a place to put them,” said Clearwater police Detective James McBride, who directs the Clearwater/Tampa Bay Area Human Trafficking Task Force. “DCF is doing the best they can with what services are out there. ... We just need a place to house these children.”
Efforts are underway in the area, with two organizations working to raise funds to build facilities and a third preparing to reopen a five-bed safe home after it shut down because of problems with the state’s licensing requirements. According to DCF, there will be more than 50 beds available in central and southern Florida for child victims of commercial sexual exploitation within a year.
In the meantime, with no place available that caters to their needs, the victims often are placed in group homes or other facilities for abused and abandoned children and runaways, according to McBride. Not only do the prostituted children fail to receive the treatment and care they need, he said, but other children in the facilities are becoming targets of sex traffickers.
“Pimps are using that as a recruitment tool,” McBride said. “Pimps are laughing.”
McBride said he has had cases where pimps recruited from facilities after the children they were prostituting were taken there. Sometimes, the children will do the recruiting from the inside, bringing other kids with them when they run away.
Joshua House, a group home in Hillsborough County, has seen its residents targeted.
A year ago the Joshua House had a sex trafficking recruiter in its midst, according to DeDe Grunder, executive director of the Friends of the Joshua House Foundation.
Using false documents, a woman passed herself off as a teenager through the foster care program and was admitted to the Joshua House. Once inside, she persuaded three girls — ages 13 and 14 — to go to a McDonald’s, Grunder said.
“That’s not how it ended,” Grunder added. The girls were taken away and drugged. They woke up in a sex house where they were abused and spent the weekend, Grunder said. After the weekend, the girls were drugged again and dropped off on the streets.
“It was enough that you realize how vulnerable you are,” Grunder said. “Our girls were obvious victims. They were drugged. They were put some place they didn’t want to be.”
Three weeks later, the woman tried the same tactic again with three other girls at the Joshua House, Grunder said. This time the staff was ready and were able to stop the girls from getting in the car.
The woman fled but was later arrested, Grunder said. Grunder didn’t know the disposition of the case. She said Joshua House has since put safeguards in place.
“It’s not going to happen to the Joshua House again,” Grunder said. “We’re not going to let it.”
Grunder didn’t think the Safe Harbor Act is creating problems, and McBride said the law has made it easer for law enforcement by allowing DCF to place the victims in a safe place.
But Natasha Nascimento says the Safe Harbor Law is seriously flawed and might have the unintended consequence of making children more vulnerable.
Nascimento said her efforts to open a safe house in the Tampa area ran aground a few months after the Department of Children & Families required Nascimento’s organization, Redefining Refuge, to hire a contractor licensed to operate group homes.
Safe homes and group homes are very different, Nascimento said. The care and supervision provided in a safe home is much more intense, and security is extremely important. No one is allowed to visit a safe home, even to give a staff member a ride, without signing a confidentiality agreement pledging not to reveal the location. Residents are not allowed to leave unaccompanied by staff, even to go to school. Rather, they are home-schooled, intensely supervised and given specialized therapy, Nascimento said.
That’s because the girls are brainwashed and traumatized; they’re loyal to their pimps and want to go back, Nascimento said.
She read from the journal of a 14-year-old girl who lived briefly in a safe home her organization had earlier this year: “Why do we love the ones that beat us?” the girl wrote. “They will butter you up and tell you you are pretty and everything else you like.”
Trying to open a home has been difficult, Nascimento said. First, her organization tried to use a fixer-upper home but ran into structural problems. Then, they got a house on several acres in a rural setting. The house is decorated with colors designed to soothe and inspirational sayings on the walls.
The beds are on raised platforms, creating small study areas underneath that the girls can call their own. Cameras and a security system were installed.
After months of jumping through permitting and licensing hoops, the home welcomed three residents May 1, even though Nascimento said she knew the arrangement dictated by DCF wouldn’t work.
And within two weeks, the group home operators left, taking the girls with them, she said.
In that time, she said, there were several issues, mainly involving a lack of structure, culminating when one girl ran away, only to be found a few days later in a hotel room where she had been prostituted.
Nascimento said she was making plans with DCF to transition the girls to another arrangement when the contractor got wind of the situation and pulled out, taking the girls. Nascimento is in the process of getting a new license; she said DCF is working to license the home the correct way. She plans to reopen soon.
In the meantime, Nascimento has written the governor and says she has contacted some state legislators, hoping to get changes made to the Safe Harbor Act. She says lawmakers thought treating the children as victims instead of as delinquents would save the state money because it costs $225 a day to keep a child in detention compared to $80 to $140 for residential care. But therapeutic safe houses are more expensive than detention, costing $290 to $325 a day.
“Although the implementation of the Safe Harbor Act is a true testament to the dedication of the capitol to advocate for our youth, it seems that we have arrived at the final result without an established foundation,” she wrote. Because some organizations weren’t involved in writing the legislation, she added, “little or no concessions (especially financially) are in place to actually provide adequate support of the policies as set forth in the Safe Harbor Act.”
Nascimento said she hasn’t received a response from the governor or legislators, whom she would not name.
Contacted by The Tampa Tribune about Nascimento’s letter, the governor’s office did not respond to her specific concerns. DCF, which spoke for the governor’s office, provided a statement: “DCF continues to work deliberately to license safe houses across Florida that will have the setting, resources and expertise to treat victims of human trafficking. Florida has taken a huge step in treating these young people as victims and not as criminals and delinquents.
“As DCF works to enhance services to victims of sex trafficking through licensing, these young victims are evaluated and placed into settings that are most appropriate for their individual situations — that may be a specialized group home, a therapeutic foster home or intensive in-home services... DCF is also working with our partners to recruit more therapeutic foster homes in order to ensure we have options for the best placement to meet the needs of these victims.“
The Tampa Tribune also gave a copy of Nascimento’s letter to Rep. Ross Spano, R-Dover, who said he would work to address her concerns, in particular the issue also raised by McBride about other children being made vulnerable when sex trafficking victims are placed in residential facilities.
“If that’s happening, Lord have mercy, it’s something that’s got to be addressed,” Spano said. He said it also is “ absolutely absurd” that the state has collected only two fines from johns, adding, “We may need to go back and tweak the statute.”