Naples Daily News Guest commentary – Linda Oberhaus
Naples Daily News Guest Commentary
Sunday, Jan. 15, 2017
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Battered and bruised, Lana was 18 years old when she was brought from the hospital to The Shelter for Abused Women & Children.
At 16, she had fled a broken home with plans for a new life with a man she thought was her boyfriend. Three years later, her life was a nightmare of abuse and violence, having been sold for sex on a website called Backpage.
Lana is an American-born citizen. She could be the daughter of your friend or neighbor. She is one of 38 human trafficking victims served by the shelter in just the last two years.
January is Human Trafficking Awareness Month. As you read this commentary, it is important to note that human trafficking is the fastest-growing and third-largest organized criminal activity in the world, just behind the drug and arms trades. Florida ranks third in the nation for calls to the National Human Trafficking Hotline.
Sex trafficking, in particular, is a lucrative industry. In a 2014 report, the Urban Institute estimated that the underground sex economy ranged from $39.9 million in Denver to $290 million in Atlanta.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, a trafficker can make up to $150,000 to $200,000 per person each year and the average trafficker has four to six girls.
Recognizing the importance of this issue, the Collier County Sheriff’s Office Human Trafficking Unit employs a full-time detective and victim advocate. This unit leads the region in the number of human trafficking investigations and arrests.
During Tuesday’s Human Trafficking Awareness proclamation in the Collier County Commission chambers, Commissioner Donna Fiala stated that during the Florida Association of Counties’ legislative conference, the Sheriff’s Office was recognized as “lead in the state” for its work to stop human trafficking.
Community awareness plays a vital role in the fight against human trafficking. We live in a perceived paradise, but sex trafficking can happen to anyone, anywhere and in any situation. Traffickers target vulnerable victims such as runaways, victims of abuse/neglect and those suffering from mental illness, traumatic life events or drug addiction.
Victims are often coerced with false promises of jobs, or through feigned romantic relationships such as Lana’s. Once their victim is caught in the trap, traffickers use a variety of mental and physical manipulations including threats, intimidation, violence and drugs to maintain control.
Survivors of sex trafficking endure an unspeakable amount of pain and trauma. In addition to serious physical and emotional injury, trafficking victims suffer serious mental health issues, which frequently present themselves after the more immediate needs, such as safety and shelter, have been met. Victims may also face legal battles for crimes they were forced to commit by their traffickers. These criminal records haunt them for the rest of their lives.
The Shelter for Abused Women & Children is committed to providing safe shelter and the long-term therapeutic care that victims of human trafficking need to re-establish normalcy in their lives. In November, plans were announced for the Shelly Stayer Shelter for Victims of Human Trafficking & Domestic Violence. Slated to be built on 5 acres in Immokalee, this $5.5 million emergency shelter will be uniquely designed with a wing to serve survivors of domestic violence and a wing to assist victims of human trafficking.
Unfortunately, few victims of human trafficking ever come forward. They are invisible victims of unspeakable crimes and it is up to each of us to learn to recognize the signs of human trafficking and report anything suspicious.
Please go to naplesshelter.org/trafficking for more information on how you can help identify human trafficking and become part of the solution.
If you know or suspect that someone is a victim of human trafficking or domestic violence, call the shelter’s 24-hour crisis hotline at 239-775-1101.