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Domestic Violence Or Human Trafficking? The State Is Just Learning To Tell

Creative Commons via Flickr user d'n'c

Katherine Fernandez Rundle, State Attorney for Miami-Dade County, says she had never heard of any criminal cases involving human-trafficking victims in Miami.

But the National Human Trafficking Resource Center says Florida ranksthirdin the number of calls reporting potential human trafficking cases. South Florida in particular is a hotspot.

“So clearly we weren't looking at the issue in the correct way," Rundle says. "Our vision was that [human trafficking involved] young people from foreign countries — Singapore, the Philippines — coming in.”

In fact, now, about 90 percent her of cases involve local victims, Rundle says.

So two years ago, the state passed its first law empowering local authorities to make arrests in human-trafficking cases, and Rundle’s office went from having zero cases of human trafficking in 2012 to 107 last year.

Credit National Human Trafficking Resource Center
Location of callers to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline.

On the surface, these cases often look like domestic-violence or sexual-assault cases. Dig a little deeper, though, and trafficking at its core is a crime against free movement. Victims are forced to work or engage in sexual favors -- often through drugs and intimidation.

Even though law enforcement has been trained to know what to look for, they still rely on tips from family members or suspicious neighbors to see the warning signs in potential victims: “dropping out of school, a runaway not living at home, age,” Rundle lists.

And so breaking out of the mindset that human trafficking only happens to foreigners brought into the country is essential, she says.

Katariina Rosenblatt was recruited into a sex-trafficking ring when she was 13 years old, the same age as a girl   recently found stripping at Club Madonna  . Rosenblatt was initially approached at the pool area of a South Beach hotel she and her mom were living in.

“This recruiter came across as an older sister and somebody who I could trust. One day she would introduce me to her pimp," Rosenblatt says. "He said could I call him daddy. [That was] the hole that I had because my father was abusive."

She spent four years in various trafficking circles, and despite exhibiting several of the signs Rundle lists, no one stood up for Rosenblatt. She had to find an out for herself. She now runs There Is Hope For Me, a support group for trafficking victims.

One woman in the group goes by the name Joy -- she asked not to use her real name. She was going to college in Boca Raton, living in dorms, when she fell victim to trafficking.

“At first, in the moment, I didn't really think of it as trafficking. I just saw this as my life, so may as well just suck it up and do it,” Joy recalls.

She says she spent more than six months performing sexual “favors” for friends of a guy she met, who told her he loved her. When his threats got to be too much to handle, she moved out of the state. She came back, she says, to prove to people she could change. Now she’s looking for a job that will allow her to help other people in bad situations.

Identifying victims, though, is still a challenge. About half of Rundle’s cases involve victims younger than 18, she says. Which means making a case against the trafficker even harder. Victims often get attached to their traffickers. 

“Their brain isn’t developed and so these predators are fully adept," she says. "They're [able to] completely twist their brains into believing 'I'm your boyfriend and you owe me this' and 'I love you' and it goes back and forth."

“They are our own boys and girl in our own neighborhoods," Rundle says.