Unmasking Human Trafficking in Northwest Florida
A Local Summit Hopes to Raise Awareness During Human Trafficking Awareness Month
By Savannah Evanoff
Alicia Tappan once didn’t know she was a victim of human trafficking.
How would she?
The definition is an ambiguous one. It’s been dramatized on TV, left unidentified by law enforcement, misconstrued by the public and—too often—ignored.
“I knew something had happened to me when I was young, but I didn’t know what,” Tappan said. “Even the court system I went through, they called it rape and conspiracy because small-town jurisdiction really didn’t have a word for human trafficking in 2003.”
Human trafficking is as complicated as it is simple—complicated because every case and victim is different but simple, too, because anyone can be trafficked.
Tappan was a victim; she knows that now.
Human trafficking is “The act of recruiting, harboring, transporting, providing or obtaining a person for compelled labor or commercial sex acts through the use of force, fraud or coercion.”
The Circuit 1 Human Trafficking Task Force has the definition, along with the National Human Trafficking Hotline number, printed on post-its they stick in public bathroom stalls and other places victims might see it and seek help.
Florida ranks third in the U.S. for calls to that hotline, after California and Texas.
Marina Mitchell, a task force member, explained Florida is a hotbed for trafficking because of tourism and easy access to I-10.
In 2018, the hotline received 1,885 calls relating to trafficking from Florida, and 767 were determined human trafficking cases. Fifty-two cases of commercial sexual exploitation of children were reported by the Florida Department of Children and Families for the Panhandle in 2018.
The Circuit 1 Human Trafficking Task Force is a state-mandated task force that formed in 2017 and meets quarterly to work toward prevention and awareness in Escambia, Okaloosa, Santa Rosa and Walton counties. It has four subcommittees—law enforcement, faith and community, training and education and victim services.
The task force will host its second Local Human Trafficking Summit Friday, Jan. 10, during Human Trafficking Awareness Month to teach people more about the definition of trafficking and how to be part of the solution.
Sara Lefevers, co-chair of the task force, said its number one goal is to demystify the term.
“A lot of people will look at Hollywood for their definition of human trafficking,” Lefevers said. “They’ll look at the movie ‘Taken’ and say, ‘Oh, that happens internationally or to girls who get involved with bad guys.’ In reality, especially here in the Panhandle, a lot of times you see parents who are addicted to drugs who will sell their children to get drugs … Human trafficking isn’t always being abducted, taken and blindfolded.”
Human smuggling and human trafficking are two different crimes, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s website. Human smuggling is the illegal movement of someone across a border, and human trafficking is the illegal exploitation of a person, according to the site.
There are also different forms of human trafficking—sex trafficking, forced labor and domestic servitude—according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s website. Victims might be forced to do manual labor for little to no pay, forced to work as a maid in someone’s home with no identification papers or manipulated or threatened to perform sexual acts, according to the site.
Under U.S. law, any minor under the age of 18 years old induced into commercial sex is a victim of sex trafficking—regardless of whether the trafficker used force, fraud or coercion, according to polarisproject.org. But trafficking can happen to a person of any age, gender, nationality or socioeconomic status.
Mitchell echoed Lefevers’ message that people don’t always understand what constitutes human trafficking.
“If you give somebody something, whether it’s their nails getting done, hair getting done, a cellphone, and the return is sex, and they are under the age, or you are of age and don’t have food or a place to live, then it’s human trafficking,” Mitchell said. “I think it’s hard for people to understand. We all need to learn the definition and change our way of thinking. Children are children, and they need to be thought of that way.”
The average age girls are brought into human sex trafficking is 14, Mitchell said. Girls are more affected than boys, but underreporting is an issue for both.
“It really affects our foster children, runaways, young adults that aren’t really supervised,” Mitchell said. “Another group of people that are being influenced by this is our LGBTQ group. What they’re finding with that group is that if those people are coming out to their parents and they’re being turned away, then they don’t have a support system, and it makes them vulnerable to human trafficking. They’ll turn to anyone, and it’s quite sad.”
One Girls’ Story
As a high school junior in a small Michigan town, Tappan didn’t recognize the varsity boys’ track coach as a predator.
He was popular. He was funny. It’s often like that with traffickers, Tappan explained.
“They’re not scary people,” Tappan said. “They’re actually sly, charismatic, happy-go-lucky. They’re willing to provide you with anything without asking questions.”
Tappan later discovered that coach gave preferential treatment or gifts to athletes who did things to make him money, such as selling drugs or fake Rolex watches or letting him record them having sex with other students.
Tappan was one of the students victimized by him, when the parents left their children alone at his house after a team barbecue. He took the teenagers downstairs, dimmed the lights, turned up the music, opened the bar and had people guard the doors so no one could leave.
“You don’t know anything bad is happening yet, because he’s still nice and funny,” Tappan said. “But he knew.”
The coach first made them watch a pornographic film featuring two of the students. He made another that night, this time featuring Tappan.
Tappan was drugged, so the rest of her memory from that night is in fragments. She remembers being dragged through water and later bumping her head against the edge of a hot tub as she was being raped by two of her friends while the coach recorded it from the balcony above.
She woke up under a coffee table the next morning and did the only thing she knew to do—went to work. The athletic director found the VHS tape of her being raped—which had been distributed to others—on the school bus, and police were already investigating the coach from previous crimes, but Tappan didn’t come forward until six months later.
In one horrific night, a high-achieving student with dreams of attending medical school became alienated by her friends and faculty and subsequently turned to drugs and self-harm.
The coach faced multiple charges, such as aggravated assault, fraud and battery, and three of the male students involved were labeled as sex offenders. Tappan suspects they escaped harsher charges because prosecutors didn’t want to ruin their futures in college athletics.
“This is why kids get stuck in this lifestyle,” Tappan said. “Even if they try to ask for help, someone tries to rationalize it.”
The Secret Place
Tappan got out of trafficking and, with time, healed.
Today, the Pensacola resident voices the needs of her younger self for other girls who can’t. As a result, Kristin Lipscomb, the founder and president of The Secret Place, knew Tappan would make the perfect program director. When opened, The Secret Place will be a Northwest Florida home for five girls of the ages 12 through 17 who are survivors of sex trafficking. They will receive their own bedroom and bathroom while undergoing a seven- to nine-month recovery program featuring counseling, education and extracurricular activities to prepare them for their future.
Tappan believes it will change their life’s trajectory. She cites the ACE score, an evaluation that measures emotional trauma. A higher score indicates a higher risk for health problems later in life.
“I heard a survivor say, ‘It doesn’t matter if you’re a one out of 10 or a nine out of 10. Any one of those will derail you,’” Tappan said. “I had a great childhood. I was a zero out of 10 before I was trafficked.”
Fearing the Future
Task force members have seen it in many forms.
Human trafficking is a foster child lifting her shirt on Snapchat in exchange for money. It’s a young runaway having sex with multiple adults in exchange for food. It’s a young girl holed up in a hotel room making money for someone else by performing sexual acts on the internet or for visitors.
Human trafficking exists on a local scale as much as an international one.
Gretchen Busbee, a victim assistance specialist for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Florida, said many victims have been through the Florida Department of Children and Families or Florida Department of Juvenile Justice.
“These are people that law enforcement are dealing with pretty regularly but not recognizing them to be actual victims or not seeing it as human trafficking,” Busbee said. “That’s the biggest thing we’re trying to overcome.”
As chair of the Circuit 1 task force, Busbee’s primary goal is to involve more law enforcement. She coordinated a three-day law enforcement training conference about human trafficking and the stages of the investigation.
“They were really ignited,” Busbee said. “I do think those that came learned a lot.”
Human trafficking is an industry that’s huge and growing. The International Labor Organization estimates that forced labor and human trafficking is a $150 billion industry worldwide, with a large chunk of that in the U.S., according to polarisproject.org.
Traffickers can communicate from a leadership position or through video game chats, social media or cellphone apps. Mitchell met someone whose daughter was targeted by a trafficker after posting a status about being unhappy with her parents.
“Social media, internet, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat—I know I don’t have any idea how unsafe these areas are,” Mitchell said. “I’m amazed when I read these reports of fake apps—when parents think it’s a calculator on their child’s phone and it’s an app where they can communicate. Being young parents, you have to stay on top of it. It changes daily now.”
Traffickers often use the same style of isolating language in their recruitment process.
“They’ll say, ‘I really like you. I’d like to meet you at the mall, but don’t tell your friends you’re going to the mall, because they’re not as mature as you. I just think you’re grown,’” Tappan said. “Or, ‘Hey, girl, don’t tell your parents you’re going to the mall, because I’m going to buy you something really special and they’re going to think I’m too old for you because they want you to be a baby forever.’ They use isolating language, separating the child from their trusted people and using it as a compliment. It’s a backhanded compliment.”
Tappan encourages parents to be aware of their children’s whereabouts and in control of their cellphone use.
“If you’re the one who pays the bills, you can turn it off,” Tappan said. “You can plug it in at the bottom of the stairs every night—whatever your control is, it has to happen.”
Getting victims away from trafficking is as difficult as preventing it. Even when they’re not being physically held hostage, they might not know where else to turn.
“A lot of these kids don’t see themselves as victims—especially teenagers,” said Joan Irby, a recruiter for Guardian Ad Litem and task force member. “You have to remember, if that’s all you’ve ever known, you don’t know that everybody doesn’t do that—whether that’s kids that had sex with somebody so their parents could pay the rent or drug money or whatever that looks like.”
Trafficking cases are tough to investigate and prosecut because the victims are unique, Busbee said.
“They’ve been through so much,” Busbee said. “It’s a vicious cycle. Depending on how long they’ve been trafficked—it could be one time or multiple times—they’ve been so brainwashed and so physically, mentally and sexually abused, but sadly, that’s a constant in their lives, so they know what to expect.”
Because human trafficking can manifest itself in so many ways, law enforcement and the general public are hesitant to label it as that.
“Then there’s people who don’t want to think it’s happening because that makes it a tainted community, and it’s not,” Busbee said. “I think people are afraid to say it or have cases or us to have that out there because, ‘Oh, don’t go to Pensacola because you’re gonna get trafficked.’ We know it happens everywhere.”
The statistics for the U.S. grow every year, according to polarisproject.org.
Mitchell believes it’s the next opioid crisis, and the new reality is horrifying.
“There was this big human trafficker that got busted, and when they asked him why he was doing this, he said, ‘I used to be in guns and drugs; then it dawned on me. I can only sell a gun and drugs once. I can sell a person up to 20 times a day,’” Mitchell said.
Local Human Trafficking Summit
WHAT: The Circuit 1 Human Trafficking Task Force will host its second annual Local Human Trafficking Summit. This year’s keynote speaker is Erin Collins, executive director of the Florida Alliance to End Human Trafficking. There will also be three breakout sessions to kick off the event—Sarah Peacock of One More Child, with “Bridging the Gap with Law Enforcement;” Bradley Lord of Lakeview Center with “Trauma Informed Care and Human Trafficking;” and Brad Dennis of Klaas Kids with “Human Trafficking 101.”
WHEN: Doors open at 6:30 p.m.; Summit is 7-9 p.m. Friday, Jan. 10
WHERE: Olive Baptist Church, 1836 E. Olive Road