Officials address human trafficking in Brevard

Slavery is back in Brevard County, and experts say it’s happening more than most people think.

In known cases, it looks like this:

  • A 14-year-old runaway from Cocoa being sold for sex in dingy hotel rooms and warned not to tell anyone. Or else.
  • An Ethiopian woman who told Melbourne police she escaped from her job as a maid. She said the family that brought her to the U.S. did not pay her nor give her food as promised. She claimed she was abused.
  • Twenty-four teens and preteens, sandwiched into a van with half as many seatbelts. On each others’ laps. On the floor. Sent into strange communities without food or water to sell cheap goods so their bosses could pocket the profit. A tragedy in the making, officials called it.

“Sooner or later, if we don’t stop this we’re going to have a child dead on the streets,” said Sue Aboul-Hosn, a human trafficking and missing child specialist for the Florida Department of Children and Families.

Hundreds of people gathered at Devereux Florida’s Viera campus this week for an educational seminar, held this month because January has been designated Human Trafficking Awareness Month.

United States Rep. Bill Posey, R-Fla., headlined the symposium. Posey is a co-sponsor of the Strengthening the Child Welfare Response to Human Trafficking Act, which would direct the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to look at successful prevention programs and publish a report of “best practices” that agencies and private entities can use on local and regional levels.

“It’s going to be a real-time information exchange that should really be beneficial, helping people speak to each other and connecting the dots to fight this,” he said.

Traffickers exploit another person for labor or sexual purposes, often pocketing a big profit. Officials say human trafficking — what they call modern day slavery — is the second-most lucrative criminal enterprise, behind drug trafficking and ahead of weapons dealing, generating $34 billion revenue each year.

The victims are most often young men or women, but can be adults, said Dr. Anthony Davis, who leads the East Coast Human Trafficking Task Force in Brevard County. That can be children trying to buy sneakers, or people from third-world countries who end up as indentured servants. Traffickers often prey on people of low social and economic status; children who are runaways or lonely, for example. The victims can appear submissive and may suffer injuries or be malnourished.

Devereux offers the county’s only residential treatment program for youth who have been sexually exploited for commercial gain. Treatment coordinator Erin Wirsing hears stories of victims who are vulnerable, or who are tricked or threatened by people who appear to care for them. Eventually, the victims feel like they owe something.

She recalled a girl who came to Devereux at 16 after being exploited. The girl had been in and out of group homes and met a man who offtered her food and a place to stay in exchange for sex.

“I heard her tell stories,” Wirsing said. “She went to the mall with this man, and he was trying to get other girls to do it, too. She got mad, but went home with him anyway. In her mind it was better to go with this guy and have her ‘freedom’ than go back to the group home.”

Human trafficking cases have been largely absent from the local justice system as law enforcement works to understand a crime where the victims sometimes do not know they’re being exploited. But police, service providers and community organizations are stepping forward to increase awareness and, they hope, crack down.

Davis said areas like Orlando, Tampa and Miami have taken a more proactive approach to cracking down on human trafficking. As a result, traffickers move into other areas, such as Brevard, where there is not as tight a watch.

In October, Palm Bay police collared two men in what officials say is the area’s first case of child “sales crews,” a form of labor trafficking. Children as young as 12 — participants in a group called Teens Against Drugs and Alcohol — were carted like cattle from Orlando, sent door-to-door peddling Dollar Store merchandise at one for $9 or two for $15. They had been in Brevard County before; and the leaders had skirted prosecution in Pinellas County years prior. They continued their enterprise despite labor law violations and fines from the state.

Officials hope the arrests were a wake-up call for the community.

“What happened in Palm Bay with 24 youth, this could happen in any area,” Davis said. “I think now it forces them to say if it can happen in Palm Bay, it can happen in Satellite Beach, Titusville, Cocoa Beach. We have to look at, not when does it come to Brevard, but where is it in Brevard.”

Palm Bay Police Officer Chris Jones has kept in touch with some of the teens.

While the criminal case against the two leaders has yet to unfold, Jones said the arrests were a step toward awareness.

“If I got anything out of this case, it’s Palm Bay citizens calling every day saying, yeah, these kids are out here again,” Jones said. He’s gotten calls from some of the kids who he found in the van four months ago.

“I know for a fact that 20 of the kids aren’t on the street doing this. I want these guys to go to prison, but saving 20 kids’ lives is enough for me.”

Contact Barchenger at 321-242-3669, or follow at

Human trafficking

For more information on human trafficking, call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center at 888-373-7888 or go to

If you suspect a child is a victim, call the Florida Abuse Hotline at 800-96-ABUSE or go to

Original Article


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