BAY COUNTY, Fla. (WMBB)– Human trafficking is a crime that can be hard to spot, and with platforms like social media, it’s happening more than you think. January is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month.

The 14th Judicial Circuit Human Trafficking Task Force serves six Panhandle counties, and board member, Dr. Laurie Lawrence said the crime is on the rise within our community.

“According to the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) in 2020, we had the highest rate per capita of child victims in the entire state of Florida, and that number was 201, and we have increased by 40% in 2021,” Lawrence said.

The saddest part, Lawrence said is that the agency anticipates 10% of cases are actually reported. So she assumes even more victims are out there.

Over this past year, there were numerous undercover sex stings and efforts by law enforcement to get predators off the streets, such as ‘Operation Watchdog’ and ‘Operation Dirty Santa.’

While Dr. Lawrence said she is happy more predators are unable to harm others, she believes there is more to be done, especially for the victims of these crimes.

“In the entire state of Florida, we are the only area that doesn’t have a recognized safe house for children,” she said.

Instead, Panhandle children victims are often cared for in facilities in Central Florida or Northeast Florida. She also acknowledged there are even less resources for LGBTQ+ trafficking victims within our community.

Dr. Lawrence said 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. In children, Lawrence said to pay attention to a child that may be withdrawn or more apt to spend time at their friend’s house than their own.

It’s also important to know traffickers are not always what stereotypes may lead you to believe, most victims know their traffickers personally.

“There’s a lot of family trafficking which means mom, dad, step-parents, aunts, and uncles are using children as a resource for trafficking, gain, and income,” she said.

To report human trafficking, you’re encouraged to call the human trafficking hotline at 1-888-373-7888 to connect you to local agencies in our area.

The 14th Judicial Circuit Human Trafficking Task Force meets bi-monthly via zoom and is now focusing on creating a strategic plan to address the needs of awareness and victim advocacy in the area. If you are interested in participating you’re encouraged to contact Dr. Lawrence at