Balloons tied to Hathaway Bridge represent 201 child victims of trafficking in NW Fla.

Bay County

PANAMA CITY, Fla. (WMBB) — Dozens of blue balloons could be seen across the Hathaway Bridge on Monday, each one representing a child trafficked in Northwest Florida last year.

According to the Department of Children and Families, 201 children were victims of human trafficking in the NW Florida region in 2020, the highest rate per capita statewide.

“We felt like putting the balloons up gave a representation of just how vast a number 201 victims really is,” said Dr. Laurie Lawrence who is a part of the 14th Circuit Human Trafficking Task Force. She added that that number is only those that were reported.

“That’s only 25 percent of the number,” she said. “In reality there’s probably close to a thousand children who have been trafficked in the Panhandle just in the last year.”

On January 11th, National Human Trafficking Awareness and Prevention Day, Lawrence reminded the community that human trafficking is happening all around us, not always in the way we would expect.

“Human trafficking is one of the largest criminal activities in the world,” she said. “Most human trafficking is what they call hidden in plain sight. It’s happening right around us and among us.”

Bay County Sheriff’s Office investigators said the area is not immune to this situation.

“We do have it,” said Cpl. Amy Burnette, who works in the Criminal Investigations Division. “We do have ongoing cases with it here.”

Cpl. Burnette said it can start with a simple message online through social media or otherwise, or in person, preying on the most vulnerable children and adults in our community. Lawrence said that’s part of the reason it can be hard to spot.

“While abductions occur, that’s a very small percentage of human trafficking,” she said. 

According to experts, coercion and control are more prevalent, keeping victims silently trapped in plain sight. In the United States, it happens with sex trafficking and the lesser-known form, labor-trafficking.

“Law enforcement can’t do it on their own,” Lawrence said. “We need everybody involved in identifying victims.”

Gulf Coast Children’s Advocacy Center Executive Director, Lori Allen, agreed. 

“It happens in silence and oftentimes it’s shrouded in shame and guilt,” she said. “We need to become better at being in tune with those who are in our community that may not look like they necessarily need help but they do.”

Both Lawrence and Allen said the best way to get involved is by learning about the warning signs of trafficking and about how to report them. 

Click here to be redirected to the Human Trafficking Hotline’s website, where you can find out more about the red flags, who to report to and more.

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