TAMPA, Fla. — Following the Super Bowl, the I-Team reported on a rescue operation and an arrest the Tampa Bay Human Trafficking Task Force conducted in the weeks leading up to the big game.
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When an arrest happens or a victim is saved, those high points tell just part of the story. I-Team Investigator Kylie McGivern went behind the bust to reveal details about what happens before a rescue and where a victim goes to recover.
Detective Andrea Hughes, with the Tampa Police Department, said anti-human trafficking nonprofits are a critical asset in the fight against sex trafficking.
“They provide us leads for people they provide service to that may have gotten back into the life, that may now need to get back out,” Hughes told the I-Team.
At the time of a police undercover operation or sting, Hughes said a lot of times a victim may not fully open up because they’re scared — of law enforcement and of their trafficker.
“The victims’ advocates, they are able to come in, provide that connection with the victim, get them services, whether or not it’s detox or just a place to stay. And then we can come back and do a follow-up interview with them, but we still have the connection between our victims’ service providers, with us, and the victims,” Hughes said.
Selah Freedom, an anti-human trafficking nonprofit based in Sarasota, is one of those organizations, as part of the Tampa Bay Human Trafficking Task Force.
Selah Freedom’s Misty LaPerriere works with local law enforcement as a liaison and trainer, to share how to better spot and identify human trafficking.
LaPerriere’s contact with survivors, relationships build sometimes over the course of years, have led to recent rescues.
“As we’re talking to survivors, they’re opening up to us. Maybe they’re sharing information about their trafficking and they’re always given the option if they would like to report the crime,” LaPerriere said. “Then we’re finding out what area the crime happened in and getting a hold of law enforcement so they can do their investigation, which sometimes can also help us recover a victim of human trafficking and also hold the trafficker accountable.”
LaPerriere shared that in her experience, it typically takes seven to eight points of contact with a survivor before she or he is ready to accept help.
“There’s a lot of manipulation that goes into it,” she said. “Sharing with these victims of human trafficking that they love them, they want to travel with them, have a life of adventure, that they’re going to save money through this and be able to have their own ‘family’, so there is a ton of manipulation that goes in and preys on our youths’ vulnerabilities.”
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LaPerriere said there’s a lot of preparation that goes into each rescue operation.
“Whether it’s clothing, a blanket, do we have detox beds lined up? Because the last thing we want to do is be out there having one of these operations and have nothing to offer them. Because then it’s like, what’s the point?” LaPerriere said.
What starts as outreach and providing a safe place to sleep, could become the turning point in a survivor’s life.
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“Not just giving them a place to go, but we’re also meeting with them to provide trauma therapy, educational resources, job resources, food, clothing, I mean the survivors in our program get equine therapy,” LaPerriere said. “There’s just so many services for them, to truly help them with healing that they so deserve.”
Selah Freedom’s confidential safe houses are meant to feel like home and provide a safe space to unpack trauma.
One of the homes has room for 11 survivors. Selah Freedom’s program ranges anywhere from 9 months to a year — sometimes even longer.
When asked what the home means for survivors of human trafficking, residential coordinator Madeleine Childers said, “For most of our survivors, it literally means life or death.”
“It’s a place that they get to call home, maybe for the first time,” Childers said. “We had a survivor that came into our program and on her first day she stood in front of her bed and cried, just because she couldn’t remember the last time that she had a bed that was just for her.”
Childers said a big part of the program is helping survivors discover who they are and their interests.
“A lot of times our survivors come in and don’t really know who they are or what they want,” Childers said. “Do you like art? Do you like arts and crafts? Do you like cooking? Do you like reading? Do you like journaling?”
The seemingly normal, day-to-day activities, can be very powerful, Childers said.
“Just allowing them to have those normal experiences, maybe for the first time in a very long time, helps them to build those building blocks of identity where they can become the person they want to be,” she said.
If you believe you are a victim of human trafficking or suspect an adult is a victim of human trafficking, please visit the National Human Trafficking Hotline or call 1-888-373-7888. If you suspect a child is a victim, please call the Florida Abuse Hotline at 1-800-96-ABUSE.