BAY COUNTY, Fla. (WMBB)– Though it is a crime that can be hard to spot, human and sex trafficking is a harsh reality for the Panhandle area.
Northwest Florida has more human and sex trafficking cases per capita for children, than anywhere else in the state.
Dr. Laurie Lawrence on the executive board of the 14th Judicial Circuit task force said according to the Florida Department of Children and Family Services, 201 children were rescued from trafficking situations just last year.
Lawrence added that this number failed to recognize adult victims, so she suggested there could be thousands of more victims out there.
While sex and human trafficking is a large crime, it is often very complex and can be linked to other crimes, particularly, drug trafficking.
“Traffickers are not stupid. Traffickers are very smart individuals, it’s not what we see in the media or on TV, and they know how to exploit their victims, so if you have a drug addiction it’s easier for me to use you. I supply your addiction you supply me with a higher income from it,” said Lawrence.
Sex and Human Trafficking cases can also increase during large events when more people come to an area. Lawrence said for the Panhandle, this could be Spring Break.
“We have a large influx of people coming and a lot of recreational activities taking place, and therefore a higher need for traffic victims. So we see them actually brought into the area. In the case of Spring Break, there’s a lot of young adults, they are partying, and they are having a good time and it’s an easy way to exploit individuals,” Lawrence said.
Lawrence also said that sex trafficking is often about coercion and control, and anyone can become a victim of the crime.
Some key signs to look for are someone who is isolating themselves from family or someone who may acquire fancy new objects they would not normally have. This is because often their trafficker is trying to groom their victim and gain their trust.
The task force is not just limited to Bay County, but Calhoun, Gulf, Jackson, Holmes, Jackson, and Washington counties. So if you would like to join and help with outreach, education, training, and victim services you’re more than welcome to.
The open house will take place via zoom at 11 a.m. CT on March 18:
Meeting ID: 938 1648 2251
Lawrence also said her team is looking to educate Spring Breakers about sex and human trafficking through outreach on the beaches this Friday, March 19, details about that will be announced in the zoom meeting.