There are predators who walk among us. They are Black and white, male and female, young and old, rich and poor. They are our neighbors and friends, business leaders and community workers. And thanks to the Tallahassee Police Department’s Operation Stolen Innocence — a two-year investigation into human and child sex trafficking — 178 of these individuals have now been charged with preying on our most vulnerable.
While this is an incredible accomplishment, and likely the largest successful investigation of its kind in local history, it is also a sobering reminder that predation and exploitation happens every single day, hidden in plain sight.
Human trafficking is the world’s fastest-growing criminal enterprise and is set to outpace drug trafficking. The problem is very real and it is growing fast. You may know that Florida is a hotbed for human trafficking — the third highest trafficking destination in the country in fact, with half of all victims being children — but the fact that it’s happening in every single community and zip code in the Sunshine State, including yours and mine, likely seems unreal.
This horrifying truth must be acknowledged and understood if we hope to bring an end to this modern-day slavery, and protect our own children from falling victim to the traps predators set.
Despite the well-known trope of “stranger danger,” kids are virtually never grabbed off the street by a strange man, pulled into an unmarked van and sold into sex slavery. Most children who become victims of trafficking are groomed with false promises of love, safety or opportunity by someone they come to know and trust.
Some victims are trafficked by family members, recruited by peers or exploited by those who pretend to have romantic interests before then tricking, trapping and exploiting a young victim. Sometimes, explicit photos or drug use are held over a victim’s head by a trafficker in an effort to make the child or teen feel trapped and unable to access help.
Thankfully, the State Board of Education last year created a rule mandating developmentally appropriate human trafficking prevention lessons for children in grades K-12, aimed at helping protect children from being groomed into trafficking. This rule also requires dissemination of information to arm teachers and parents with the knowledge they need to recognize and report signs of exploitation.
Traffickers and child predators are smart — but together we can be smarter. It starts with providing accurate information to children and adults, and understanding that anyone can become a victim — just as anyone could be a predator. This accurate and credible information can stop those who seek to harm our children in their tracks and help victims speak up and get help.
For information on Lauren’s Kids human trafficking curriculum and tips to keep our kids and community safe, visit laurenskids.org.
Sen. Lauren Book was a victim of childhood sexual abuse for six years at the hands of a trusted caretaker. Armed with the knowledge that 95% of sexual abuse is preventable through education and awareness, Lauren founded Lauren’s Kids as a vehicle to prevent childhood sexual abuse and help other survivors heal. She represents District 32 in Broward County, and has successfully championed anti-trafficking legislation that has helped crack down on predators and provide resources to help survivors.