South Florida organizations aim to help human trafficking survivors

Human trafficking is a modern form of slavery that continues to go unnoticed across the nation. Millions of men, women, and children are trapped in a life filled with sexual exploitation, forced labor, and torture.

Victims are targets based on vulnerabilities such as economic hardships, legal status, lack of safety, and need for validation. According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, traffickers use violence, manipulation, false promises of well-paying jobs, and romantic relations to lure victims.

The Human Tracking Hotline ranks Florida third in the nation for human trafficking cases behind California and Texas. A Human Trafficking of Children annual report from the Florida Department of Children and Families found 1,627 cases involving children in 2023.

Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle helped establish Florida’s Human Trafficking Task Force in 2012. The unit is composed of highly trained specialized prosecutors, investigators, and specialists who help victims heal and prosecute their abusers.

“One word I’d use to describe our community is collaborative, working on the safety net of services on a criminal case and partnering with others for the civil side,” said Fernandez Rundle.

So far the unit has filed 790 cases and worked with 1,044 victims of human trafficking from 2012 to 2002. Approximately 61% are local victims and 39% are from out of state. 

“We each have our area of expertise, making our goal when we prosecute cases to build such a strong case that the witness is not needed to testify,” said Fernandez Rundle.

A human trafficking survivor, who wants to remain anonymous to protect her identity is part of a non-profit organization called Selah Freedom in Sarasota. While the anti-human trafficking organization knew she was a victim, she was too afraid to leave the life she was convinced she needed. It was not until she went to jail in place of her trafficker that she finally called the organization for help. Her trafficker knew the babysitter’s house where her child was at so she was too afraid to testify against him in court. Once she knew her child was safe she called the organization to move into a safe house.

Another survivor, who also wants to protect her identity, had a strong drug addiction and did not want help. She eventually bonded out of jail and continued to be trafficked through online advertisements. She called a Miami-based organization once she ended up in the hospital and now helps survivors who face similar situations.

Laura Hincapie, a therapist and leader of Project GOLD at Kristi House in Miami, says she has to be careful when talking to survivors to avoid retraumatization. Hincapie says survivors may need cognitive behavioral therapy to help fight depression and anxiety, cognitive processing therapy for how they think and view the world following their trauma, or somatic therapy to help relieve chronic pain.

“We often see girls who try and cope with what they’ve experienced on their own, developing different beliefs about themselves and the world, which is why we use trauma focused cognitive therapy to go through different components and address that in a healthier way,” said Hincapie.

Misty LaPerriere, a national law enforcement liaison and trainer at Selah Freedom, offers outreach and consulting programs to avoid any mental, physical, or financial issues human trafficking survivors and victims of sexual abuse may come across. The organization provides survivors with clothes, medical assistance, and food. LaPerriere says they often find that some survivors fall back into a life of exploitation when faced with a lack of resources.

“I’ve seen pimps who get girls by offering them a ton of cosmetic procedures, whether it was breast enhancements, botox or lip filler,” said LePerriere. “I’ve also seen pimps who lure the girls by offering housing, cars, a better life than the one they have.”

Place of Hope, a non-profit in West Palm Beach, provides services to help end the cycle of abuse, neglect, homelessness, and human trafficking in South Florida communities. Jamie Bond, business development executive, says the organization tries to model what a family should look like to young survivors. Bond points out that it’s important to show what love, compassion, and care for a person is without having it be transactional.

“While they are in our care we want to plant those seeds, so they feel or see something that they’ve never felt before that provides them a glimmer of hope,” said Bond. 

Gloria is a survivor and founder of a non-profit organization called Taking Back the Girl in Coral Gables. The organization’s goal is to promote respect, independence, and a successful future among young girls in the community. The organization focuses on human trafficking prevention on social media platforms. Gloria says after being trafficked from the ages of 12 to 17, it’s important to give the girls an outlet and start the conversation about the online dangers. 

“Many of these girls don’t know what signs to look for, they don’t know what a healthy relationship looks like,” said Gloria. “Some of them might be in desperate need of money or may want to get away from their toxic family. As teens they go for whatever they can and sometimes that’s a trafficker.”If you or someone you know is a victim of human trafficking, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline for support.

Faith Escarda is a bilingual artist and digital designer at Florida International University. She is a part of FIU’s Spanish-language newscast and the Kopenhaver Center Leadership Boot Camp.

Escarda has a website where she shares her passion for the arts with fellow creatives. She hopes to freelance as a content creator, travel photographer, and web designer full-time

Escarda will graduate from the Lee Caplin School of Journalism & Media with a bachelor’s degree in Digital and Interactive Media in Spring 2024.