The scourge of human trafficking is all around us, and it'll take strident efforts to tamp it down.
That was the message of U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor (D—Tampa) and a handful of public and private sector officials Friday morning in downtown St. Petersburg as they announced a $600,000 U.S. Department of Justice grant to Gulfcoast Legal Services that will be used to help cover the legal expenses of victims of human trafficking, both foreign and domestic. It's part of a $5.6 grant that's been divvied up among ten cities across the country to tack the issue.
“This is a horrendous problem," Castor said. "Unfortunately, the Tampa Bay area remains a place, when you compare it to other locations across the country... People are being exploited, taken advantage of."
Castor stood alongside Gulfcoast Legal Services executive director John Dubrule, and Major David Dalton of the Clearwater Police, who is part of the Tampa Bay Area Task Force on Human Trafficking, as well as a family from the Philippines whose patriarch was the victim of human trafficking several years ago.
A number of factors make human trafficking so much more prominent in Florida — and the Tampa Bay area in particular — than it is in other places, Castor said.
“Unfortunately, the state of Florida is known as being one of the worst places in the country for sex trafficking and labor trafficking, a lot of it due to the tourist industry, unfortunately, it's agriculture, its low-wage jobs," she said. "We're a very transient state, we're a very international state. All of those things play into this, unfortunately.”
There's a good reason the feds chose to grant the money to Gulfcoast Legal Services, which operates in multiple counties in the region and is headquartered in St. Pete. The firm exists to help people in situations where they're vulnerable and otherwise unable to afford legal counsel, such as victims of wage theft.
Neveh Mahilu, a native of the Philippines, said her husband was recruited to work in construction in Orlando seven years ago, while she was serving as a foreign domestic worker in Hong Kong. Both were hoping to create a better life for their daughter, Kate.
“It was one of the happiest times in our life,” Mahilu said.
Her husband, who stood behind her, was emotional as she said what happened next. He traveled to Central Florida, where he was provided with housing while he worked as a builder.
“Eventually, the situation of unfair labor practices got worse,” she said.
Long story short, he was never paid even though he had to continue working.
Eventually, Gulf Coast Legal Services got involved and the case was ultimately resolved. The family now has U.S. citizenship and lives in the area.
But there are likely thousands of as-yet-undetected cases out there.
"We have had clients working in the agricultural community, just in the fields nearby here, who were recruited from their homes in Central America, asked to pay exorbitant recruitment fees, and told that when they came here that they would have a chance to earn enough money to pay back those recruitment fees. But when they came here, the story was different," Dubrule said. "And when they tried to leave, they were faced with threats from their employers and threats to their family back in Central America.”
Prostitution is a major culprit in Florida's human trafficking problem, he said.
“We've had clients who have been forced into the sex industry as children, at the point of a gun, sometimes, and have been unable to get out,” Dubrule said.
The $600,000 will help Gulf Coast Legal Services gain more resources as it seeks to help victims of human trafficking receive their due.
“One of the problems that people don't realize with human trafficking is that the case isn't resolved with an arrest or recovery by law enforcement," Dalton said. "Often the victims of these crimes, these heinous crimes, are faced with a litany of legal challenges they need to overcome as they assist law enforcement in the prosecution of the offenders.”
The grant is only part of an extensive, multifaceted effort locally to put an end to the practice.
Last spring, even the often-divided Florida legislature unanimously passed a measure (which the governor signed) that would help boost awareness of the problem by providing signage in places victims of the crime may frequent, such as emergency rooms and truck stops, featuring a description of what human trafficking is and how to report a possible case of it. Another measure beefed up penalties for perpetrators.
“I certainly think anything that gets awareness out there and assists victims [is a plus]," Dalton said. "Where you find one victim, it's likely that you're going to find another. So it's a way to get those victims services, but it's also a way to get information about those organizations, so every little step forward in this fight is going to help.”