PANAMA CITY, Fla. (WMBB) — Dozens of community members gathered at the Hathaway Bridge for a candlelight vigil to recognize the victims of human trafficking in the Panhandle.

January is Human Trafficking Awareness Month, and Tuesday is Human Trafficking Awarness Day.

The 14th Judicial Circuit’s Human Trafficking Task Force sponsored the gathering to raise awareness and they said the Panhandle has the worst record in the state and the issue continues to grow.

The candlelight vigil on Tuesday honored 282 local children victimized by human trafficking.

“Northwest Florida is number one in Florida for child human trafficking so it was very important for us to get the word out as well as to shed some light, get it with the candlelight vigil, to shed some light on this issue here in this area because we have both sex trafficking and labor trafficking, both child and adult,” said Human Trafficking Task Force member, Sherie Crim.

This is the vigil’s second year.

Since the first one last year, advocates said they’ve seen the number of child victims increase by 40 percent, from 201 to 282.

“Human trafficking takes in both child and adult victims so and of course, we put out a field of flags we put both pink and blue because it’s not gender-specific both female and males are trafficked,” said Dr. Laurie Lawrence with the Human Trafficking Task Force.

While kidnappings still occur, experts said human trafficking victims usually know their trafficker.
They’re hoping the community will be more vigilant and pay more attention to the warning signs.

“Children are withdrawn, they start to remove themselves from their social networks. You might have a young lady who might have a new love interest that is showering them in gifts and kind of bringing her in all of her interest towards them,” Lawrence said.

And if you see something say something.

If you notice any of these signs call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888.

People are encouraged to attend the 14th Judicial Circuits Human Trafficking Task Force meeting. You can find out the time and place on the organization’s Facebook page.