PANAMA CITY, Fla. (WMBB)–January is Human Trafficking Awareness month. The trafficking of humans is a form of modern-day slavery that is plaguing our nation and happening right here in our backyards. Florida ranks number three in worst states for human trafficking; right behind California and Texas.
“We know locations in Bay County where this is happening and it’s just it’s hard to crack,” said Sean Smith, a Senior Health Educator with the Bay County Department of Health.
According to the International Labor Organization, there are more than 40.3 million victims of trafficking worldwide.
“As time goes on, the crime stays the same, but essentially the tactics that these criminals utilize always change. It’s an ever-changing type of crime,” said Lt. JR Talamantez with the Panama City Beach Police Department.
Experts say education and awareness are the most powerful tools.
“If everybody was looking out for signs of human trafficking, there would be no human trafficking. I just say to try your best every now and then, pull that blanket of protection back just a little bit and take a look at what really is going on out there” Talamantez said.
Warning signs include signs of physical abuse, paranoia, withdrawing, fear of law enforcement, and dramatic changes in personality and behavior.
Talamantez says people in the service industry should especially lookout. Often, their job is to help others, allowing them to pay special attention to possible signs of abuse.
“If they may be paid attention to this young lady that was beaten and bruised and there’s a padlock on the door, that’s a sign something might be happening,” Talamantez said.
Parents should also be on the lookout.
“They say that it’s possible that after a teenager say around 15-years-old runs away from home, the likelihood of them being contacted by a person that’s looking to traffick them would happen within 48 hours,” Talamantez said.
Technology also plays a huge role.
“For parents, they need to be aware that a lot of trafficking happens online, so social media is the main place that traffickers try to lure in their victims,” Smith said.
Today, many have a false perception of what human trafficking is. Not realizing that it’s happening all around us. Many think trafficking only happens when someone is kidnapped and placed in a van. But trafficking can even come in the form of an abusive relationship with someone the victim knows well.
“You don’t hear the term pimp anymore, they’re a trafficker. These women that used to be called prostitutes, they’re victims,” Talamantez said.
Those with the health department formed a program called Freedom 180, a Sexual Risk Avoidance Program. The coordinators seek to educate children from a young age by speaking in schools and acting as a safe haven for victims.
“We talk about the myths versus the facts of human trafficking and just kind of equip them with the information that they need to spot human trafficking when it happens because it does happen here in Bay County,” Smith said.
Both Talamantez and Smith agree that while getting out may be difficult, you don’t have to do it alone.
“If you want out, we can help. You just need to make that first courageous step,” Talamantez said.
The National Human Trafficking Hotline can be reached at 1-888-373-7888.
Victims and caregivers can also utilize the Polaris Project. https://polarisproject.org/.
And if you are interested in local resources, visit http://bay.floridahealth.gov/programs-and-services/wellness-programs/positive-youth/freedom/index.html.