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Will Florida's new trafficking hotline clash with the established national hotline?

In this Sunday, Aug. 11, 2019, photo, a man uses a cell phone in New Orleans.
Jenny Kane
In this Sunday, Aug. 11, 2019, photo, a man uses a cell phone in New Orleans.

Florida is one of the first states in the country to develop its own human trafficking hotline, mandated by a new state law. That happened after a bipartisan group of 35 attorneys general asked Congress to look into the National Human Trafficking Hotline, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Their complaint is that the national hotline doesn’t report enough of its cases to law enforcement.

“The only way to stop trafficking is to take the head off the snake and put traffickers behind bars," said Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody.

That’s Moody describing her discovery that Catherine Chen, the CEO of Polaris, a nonprofit that runs the National Human Trafficking Hotline, had said, “We can’t arrest our way out of this problem.”

“And so, when I heard that as the attorney general, first and foremost, I met with that leader and demanded to know why tips were being delayed to law enforcement, why tips weren’t being given directly to our law enforcement," said Moody. "And they said they were more focused on victim-centered approaches than they were on putting criminals behind bars.”

Chen, who has been CEO of Polaris since 2020, says human trafficking affects nearly 28 million people worldwide and garners about $236 billion in illicit profits -- too big for a single approach to work. What’s more, she says, it’s not a question of a trafficked person being kidnapped and then rescued – it’s far more complex than that.

“Some people are in relationships with their traffickers," said Chen. "Some people are parents alongside their traffickers. Some people – their traffickers know where their loved ones live, where their children live. And so, it’s never quite that cut and dried to be able to say there’s a moment when you’re taken and there’s a moment when you get rescued.”

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Chen says the national hotline reports about 30% of its calls to law enforcement. Those include all cases involving the abuse, neglect or trafficking of a minor, which are reported to child welfare as well as to law enforcement. Other cases involve violence or the imminent threat of harm or death…if an adult victim of trafficking asks them to call…or if an adult victim asks someone else to call for them. Chen says the other 70% of their calls are either people who don’t want law enforcement involved, or who are calling to get access to services.

“We are, I think, very expressly and specifically in partnership with law enforcement agencies," she said. "And so I really do want to declare that we’re certainly not opposed to law enforcement, and we work very closely with state attorneys general, with district attorneys, with federal law enforcement, but first and foremost we respect that victims and survivors have to have agency.”

The Florida House of Representatives voted unanimously for the bill that created the new state hotline. Actually, the function of reporting human trafficking was added to an already-established hotline that also reports food stamp fraud and gasoline pump fraud.

Orlando Democratic State Rep. Anna Eskamani, who voted for the bill, says she doesn’t think Florida’s trafficking hotline will be in conflict with the national trafficking hotline.

“I’m hopeful not," she said. "I mean, I will say preventing human trafficking, overwhelmingly, is an issue that is incredibly bipartisan when there is collective alignment to do what’s right. And there’s also an agreement that it’s a problem in Florida since our two top industries are tourism and agriculture. And these are the two top industries that are most vulnerable to trafficking.”

Eskamani adds that many people trapped in these criminal operations may not speak English and or have documentation. They may have come from another country to escape being trafficked there, so their dealings with Florida law enforcement must be very thoughtful…

“…because there is a fear of deportation. With that said, the federal government does have a visa process for victims of crime," Eskamani said. "But not every person knows that, and not every law enforcement officer is trained on that.”

Victor Williams is a retired agent with Homeland Security Investigations who has 14 years of experience in human trafficking. He’s also the founder and president of Quest2Freedom, an anti-trafficking nonprofit in Miami. He says both the national hotline and the law enforcement sides of the debate could improve their games. He called the national hotline recently and had to wait for an hour.

“It’s not about bad-mouthing Polaris, because the only issue I have with them is the amount of time it’s taking them to answer the call," said Williams. "But they are doing their job in the mentality of victim-centered trauma-informed [care]. If the victim don’t want law enforcement notified, then we don’t notify law enforcement.”

He says law enforcement officers across the board should be trained – not just those who work with trafficking task forces. And that they should learn how to make their cases without putting victims on the stand.

“..because I can’t force the victim to get on the stand if they don’t want to. And I definitely don’t want to put a traumatized person on the stand," he said. "So, what am I left with then? Having to figure out how to put that bad guy in jail without using that victim.”

Williams also points out that most other states don’t have their own hotlines, so they rely on Polaris.

The National Human Trafficking Hotline number is (888) 373-7888. Florida’s trafficking hotline number is (855) 352-7233.

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Margie Menzel
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