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Lawmakers Search For Compromise On Sex-Trafficking Bill

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Florida Capitol Complex (Source: dms.myflorida.com)

Florida Capitol Complex (Source: dms.myflorida.com)

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TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) – A Florida House panel spent months on a sweeping measure that would ensure services for sex-trafficking victims, but the bill is stalled in the Senate over one issue — a proposal to detain some victims for months to keep them from returning to their pimps.

Now House and Senate panels are searching for a compromise, and their chairwomen say it will happen this year.

The Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee is expected to take up the sex-trafficking issue Tuesday. The House Healthy Families Subcommittee developed a proposal (PCB HF 14-02) that would provide sexually exploited children with specially-trained child protective investigators and case managers, as well as medical care and safe places to live. It would also direct the Department of Children and Families to develop services for victims in areas where none exist and to inspect and certify what are known as “safe houses.”

But victims often run away from the safe houses, and some recruit others to lives of prostitution — which led the House Healthy Families Subcommittee to include the bill’s most controversial provision, 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.

“They’re being coerced into situations,” said the panel’s chairwoman, Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart. “They’re being emotionally manipulated. They’re being given illegal drugs to control them. They’re put out on the streets to sell themselves to bring in income for pimps.”

But advocates have argued throughout the bill’s progress that locking up victims would interfere with their recovery.

“Striking a balance between supporting a girl as a survivor of a crime and treating her with respect and an appropriate level of autonomy is critical to helping her recover,” noted a position paper released Monday by the PACE Center for Girls. “The appropriate policy goal is not to create ‘safe houses’ but to provide a system of care with high quality comprehensive services and support suited to the needs of each survivor.”

Restraining the victims for treatment may be temporary and well-intentioned, the paper said, but “to the victim it is loss of liberty and subjugation to strangers.”

?I believe the way you keep them in a facility is if you give them comprehensive services,” said Hollywood Democrat Eleanor Sobel, chairwoman of the Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee. “They are already victims of the pimps, whoever is encouraging them and urging them and making them be part of human sex trafficking.?

The PACE Center for Girls, which works with at-risk teens, said the great majority of sex-trafficking victims have already been in the state’s foster-care or juvenile-justice systems — but the services they received didn’t keep them from being sexually exploited.

Mary Marx, chief executive officer of the PACE Center for Girls and one of the authors of the position paper, said the most successful programs for sexually exploited children accept that victims will sometimes run.

“If that occurs, you have to enable her to come back and allow her to receive services,” Marx said.

She added that children who have suffered repeated abuse frequently learn how to disconnect emotionally in order to survive, so earning their trust is crucial.

“If you can build that trust, she will run to you, instead of running back to (the pimp),” Marx said. “But you’re not going to build that trust by telling someone, ‘You have to remain in a locked facility for that to happen.'”

This report is by Margie Menzel with The News Service of Florida.

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