TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) – A House panel on Wednesday unanimously passed a sweeping measure aimed at better identifying and serving sexually exploited children.
After months of work, the House Healthy Families Subcommittee voted out a bill that would ensure a continuum of services for sex-trafficking victims, who tend to have very complex needs, by providing them with specially-trained child protective investigators, case managers and medical care.
The bill (PCB HF14-02) also directs the Department of Children and Families to develop services for victims in areas where none exist and to inspect and certify the safe houses set aside for them.
“I’m confident that we’re putting a model in place that will truly be a model for the rest of the country,” said committee Chairwoman Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart.
The bill seeks to modify the Florida Safe Harbor Act of 2012, which allowed victims to be treated as dependent children rather than as delinquent ones. The Act amended state law to define child prostitution as abuse against the child, rather than as a crime by the child.
According to the U.S. Department of State, there were roughly 40,000 human trafficking victims nationwide in 2012. Florida is the state with the third-highest rate of trafficking, after New York and California.
In 2012 and 2013, the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice tested a screening tool for sexually exploited children and found that 11.9 percent of youth with a history of running away were verified as victims.
The House bill’s most controversial provision would create a pilot program for up to 15 of the most traumatized sex-trafficking victims in a “secure safe house” in which they could be placed involuntarily for up to 10 months.
Since sex-trafficking victims often return to their exploiters, the committee wants to test a process that would keep victims from leaving before they receive services.
“We want to make it for only those small number of people for whom the less restrictive environment of a safe foster home or safe house simply will not work,” Harrell said.
Critics of the pilot proposal include the Children’s Campaign and its partner, The Delores Barr Weaver Policy Center, which put out a statement earlier this week saying the measure is “a terrible policy direction and amounts to a return to re-traumatizing and re-victimizing children who are sex trafficked.”
“I worry that these children have been victimized, and we’re putting them in a locked-up facility again,” Rep. Lori Berman, D-Lantana, said on Wednesday.
However, Berman noted, the panel had already studied the problem, and the pilot was small.
“We’ll do everything we can to monitor it and make sure that the victims aren’t victimized again,” she said.
“We’re going to be watching it,” Harrell agreed.
Attorney General Pam Bondi visited the panel during its discussion and lauded the members for their work. She said the majority of sex trafficking victims are between the ages of 12 and 14. Bondi also called for more safe homes, saying many trafficking victims have nowhere to go.
“Either they’ve aged out of foster care, or the only place they have is back to the original spot where the horrible situation started and they were taken from that place,” she said.
This report is by Margie Menzel with The News Service of Florida.