By Jessica Forbes
There are an estimated 21 to 30 million persons enslaved throughout the world at present, more than at any point in human history.
The concept of slavery and indentured servitude abroad may be more familiar to some. And it’s true: modern slavery is a crisis linked with the production of food, clothing, electronics and countless other consumer products imported from overseas. But both sex and labor trafficking are prevalent in the U.S. as well.
Trafficking occurs in American hotels, restaurants, fields, massage parlors and multiple other venues. The women, children, and men trafficked into and within the U.S. for sex and labor purposes are individuals from foreign countries and American neighborhoods.
For most people, the notion of an 8-year old forced to participate in the sex trade or parents trying to sell their own children are incomprehensible, but these are instances of trafficking that Brad Dennis has encountered not overseas, but in Pensacola. The 8-year old victim rescued locally was the youngest Dennis has worked with in almost 10 years combating human trafficking throughout the U.S.
Dennis is the National Search Director for Klaas Kids Foundation, a national missing children’s organization, and is also the founder of Called2Rescue, a ministry that teaches community groups how to identify and educate others about human trafficking.
Through the efforts of numerous law enforcement agencies and organizations like Called2Rescue, anti-human trafficking advocates are forming coalitions and raising awareness of the scope of the problem and its prevalence, not just in distant towns and cities, but also in the hotels, streets, restaurants and retail establishments of Northwest Florida.
The Need for a Network
Dennis repeatedly uses a word at the center of most any discussion on trafficking: awareness.
“I still think that a lot of people envision human trafficking as something that only happens overseas,” Dennis recently told the IN. “Unfortunately it happens right here to our own.”
Dennis first realized the troubling commonness of trafficking through his work with Klaas Kids, an organization dedicated to searching for missing children. Marc Klaas founded Klaas Kids in memory of his daughter, Polly, who was abducted in 1993. Dennis ran the search for Polly at that time, while still serving in the U.S. Navy.
Dennis began coordinating searches for missing children 27 years ago while completing intelligence and special operations training programs in the military. “My commanding officer at the time told me that I needed to go out and start giving some of this training back to the community; he thought that it would be good for me to get involved with search and rescue, and that has sort of stuck.”
When he retired from the Navy as a Master Chief Petty Officer in 2003, Klaas Kids enlisted Dennis’ expertise. The organization now has offices in California and Pensacola, from which they operate national searches for missing children. Dennis estimates he and a team of approximately 60 volunteers work about 200 cases in-depth each year, and coordinate and physically work about 40 searches annually.
In 2005, Dennis founded Called2Rescue after a string of cases—including three children from Pensacola—turned out to be sex trafficking cases. “They were all children that had either run away or had been lured away. One had been abducted. All ended up in the hands of a pimp or some kind of ring of trafficking in which they were prostituting these kids out,” Dennis stated. “It opened our eyes up, obviously.”
Those three children, ages ranging from 14 to 17, were all found being prostituted in Pensacola, and are among the approximately 100,000 American children that the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) estimates are forced into some form of commercial sex each year.
“When you understand the scope of the problem when it comes to missing children, then you can begin to believe the 100,000 [figure],” Dennis said of the DOJ statistic. “Here in the United States, we average 2,200 children being reported missing every day.”
While the first three cases related to trafficking that Dennis worked were contained within Pensacola, in many instances victims—adult and child victims alike—are transported out of the area in which they were picked up.
“Traffickers, once they recruit or lure or pick up someone, they want to immediately leave that area,” Dennis stated. “It is so transitory in nature that it makes sense to create a network that is constantly communicating back and forth with one another.”
And building community awareness—of what trafficking is, how to identify and report it—is the first step in creating interconnected networks equipped to effectively combat trafficking.
Realizing a community’s role in the broader network of trafficking is essential to those working to eradicate the practice. The terms “source,” “destination” and “transit” are used to identify a given locale’s role in trafficking.
“Originally those terms were designed to define a country,” said Dennis of the terms’ use in the U.S. Department of State’s annually-published “Trafficking In Persons” report. “I also believe that you can do the exact same thing for a region here in the United States or even a city.”
The United States classifies as “an all three country,” Dennis explained. “We have our own source, we’re definitely a destination country because the demand is here, but we’re also a transit country because we can move victims in and out of this country very easily.”
Like the U.S. itself, Pensacola could also be defined as “an all three” area, but Dennis states that he sees Pensacola as a location that is more of a transit point because of its location along one of the busiest transportation corridors in the country: Interstate-10.
Florida is a hot spot in the nation’s human trafficking industry, which is tied with arms dealing as the world’s second largest criminal industry, behind only drug dealing. The “industry” portion of the term is unsettlingly accurate—traffickers move victims around just as retailers transport their respective product to markets that have proven to demand the supply.
“Most of this is driving a victim or a group of victims from place to place. It’s one of the biggest reasons why Florida is ranked number three in the country for human trafficking offenses, because we have two major interstate systems here: I-10 and I-95,” Dennis said. “I-10 has always been identified as probably the number one corridor of human trafficking. It makes sense, because it literally goes from one coast to the other coast, and it has direct access to Mexico.”
Aside from the forced sex and labor practices occurring daily in the Panhandle, victims are transported through this region en route to other destinations. According to Dennis, he recently worked with law enforcement agencies on a case several states away and discovered that the victim in question had been in Pensacola only two weeks before.
“We’re going to have victims starting in the springtime that are going to be smuggled through this area on I-10, going down to the agricultural farms in South Florida. They could be labor or they could also be sexual services for those labor workers,” Dennis said.
From his work with Called2Rescue, Dennis has learned that in sex trafficking, pimps typically keep victims moving on a circuit to avoid detection and to accommodate demand. “For a weekend you might see the advertisements for these young girls online, or we may see them on our streets, or we may see them in our hotels—and then the next week, they’re gone.”
Training in Action
Establishing a network of anti-human trafficking trainers is Dennis’s aim with Called2Rescue. The organization currently has 10 to 15 trainers that conduct training throughout the U.S. and in Pensacola, Called2Rescue’s home base.
“It really does come down to a fundamental issue of the violation of someone’s human rights. People take notice of that and they want to fight back against that, which is wonderful, but they’ve got to be able to do it in the right way,” said Dennis, who has found that most people, once they are aware of the problem, are compelled to take action.
“It’s very difficult to get involved in anti-human trafficking work to that level of actually trying to rescue people, because there are certain lines that you just can’t cross—I can’t teach people to go kick in doors because that’s not our job, that’s law enforcement’s,” Dennis stated. “We developed Called2Rescue to be able to teach churches and other organizations that really wanted to get more active in anti-human trafficking work to do it in a way that they could partner with law enforcement.”
While Klaas Kids focuses on missing children and the trafficking cases Dennis works on typically involve minors as a result, Dennis and Called2Rescue have teamed up with local non-profit service providers, churches and law enforcement officials in the Pensacola Coalition Against Human Trafficking to address the issue of trafficking across the board.
The local coalition and its combination of providers are equipped to assist in the gamut of human trafficking cases, be it adult or child victims, U.S. citizens or those trafficked from abroad, and victims of sex and labor trafficking alike.
One of Called2Rescue’s local partners is Liberty Church, which Dennis called a “guinea pig” of sorts for some of the organization’s training programs.
Kristin Lipscomb, director of Liberty Church’s human trafficking ministry, was aware of the issue of trafficking when she first met Dennis two years ago. “He and I began to meet and discuss the issue both from a national perspective, and of course, from a local perspective as we both reside here in Pensacola,” Lipscomb said.
Liberty Church has now been partnered with Called2Rescue for approximately a year and a half. The primary focuses of the Liberty team’s training has gone beyond basic awareness education and includes online monitoring, on-the-street outreach, fostering community awareness, and recovery and restoration for victims.
“We also do work within our own human trafficking ministry as well, and have a vested interest in working alongside many of our international partner missionaries in Nepal, Thailand, Scotland and Costa Rica, where this issue is also front and center,” Lipscomb, who also serves on the board for Called2Rescue, stated. “I have a saying—but it’s not just a saying to me it’s something I feel in my bones—and it’s ‘Every face matters, period.’ My husband, Josh’s and my ministry is built around this.”
As part of their work with Called2Rescue, the Liberty Church team utilized more advanced training they’ve received to assist operations during the Super Bowl last month, which resulted in rescues.
“We also went a little bit further with them and taught them some of the intelligence analysis and interdiction efforts that we do as Klaas Kids,” Dennis said. “During the Super Bowl they established a command center and were able to do a lot of the work that we needed in New Jersey.”
Prior to the Super Bowl, an event that Klass Kids and Called2Rescue has focused on for the last six years, the organization worked with partners in New Jersey, visiting schools and training ahead of the event, and worked directly with law enforcement themselves. “That operation resulted in 16 minors being rescued, 45 pimps being arrested, and a number of other adult victims being found and rescued. That was in a five day operation that covered three states,” Dennis stated.
While the Super Bowl is a high-profile event, local coalition members work in this community throughout the year in trafficking detection and rescue.
“We were able to assist in a local rescue as well, and our team has assisted in the search of a missing person case. We also work with survivors,” said Lipscomb, who explained that Liberty Church has venues for counseling and shelter for locally rescued persons on top of the other anti-human trafficking services their team conducts.
“It’s my passion to see worth rise up in people and it’s one of the reasons why I feel like I am here. These girls and boys were once little kids, just like you and I. They deserve freedom and if it’s one girl or boy, or grown female or male adult that gets rescued, it’s worth it,” Lipscomb said. “We look forward to partnering with many. It really takes the entire community—from business, to not-for-profits, to education and faith based organizations—to come together to make a dent.”
As more victims of trafficking are identified and rescued locally, the more law enforcement and anti-human trafficking partners begin to learn about the practices in our area and the services needed to support survivors.
“All along the Gulf Coast, we have seen a rise in not only domestic cases, but also international cases. Most of the international cases that we have dealt with have dealt with labor trafficking, not sex trafficking,” Dennis said.
Upon rescuing an individual from trafficking, immigration concerns are among some of the most pressing issues to address, particularly because perpetrators often use fears related to a person’s immigration status to discourage victims from attempting to escape.
“You’re stuck,” Dennis said of the situation in which many victims recruited from overseas find themselves. “One of the very first things they do when you get off the plane is seize your passport, visa, all of your documentation so that if you run, they tell you that ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] is going to arrest you, deport you, you will be viewed as a criminal, all that kind of stuff,” Dennis stated.
Locally, Catholic Charities of Northwest Florida works with victims trafficked from other countries to secure specific visas for those cooperating with investigations, as provided by the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA), the first comprehensive federal law in the U.S regarding human trafficking.
Maria Roswold, Program Coordinator of the Refugee Immigration Program of Catholic Charities of Northwest Florida, coordinates immigration relief for the nonprofit’s service area, which encompasses the entire Panhandle region. The nonprofit organization has two contracts for providing social services to survivors of human trafficking, one through the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) and another through Tapestri, Inc., an Atlanta-based agency that works with survivors of violence within the refugee and immigrant communities.
Through those contracts, Catholic Charities is responsible for developing and implementing individualized service and safety plans for victims. “We only provide services to foreign-born nationals. Unfortunately we don’t have big numbers of clients served, due to the fact that in order to qualify for a continued presence they must cooperate with the investigation to prosecute their traffickers,” Roswold stated.
“We have worked with Jamaican, Honduran and Romanian clients. We have been told that there is a large community of Eastern European survivors in the Panama City area, but no one has come forward seeking our services,” Roswold said. “We don’t have any identified or active clients in Pensacola, but we do have clients in other areas of the Panhandle. The hospitality and retail industries are the area where they have been trafficked into.”
Dennis stated that he has encountered victims from overseas in Panama City over to the Mississippi Gulf Coast who have been forced to dance in strip clubs, forced to work in tourist establishments without pay, or forced to work in shipyards and restaurants and get paid either not at all or “next to nothing and living in just terrible conditions.”
Often traffickers recruit from foreign countries by securing batches of visas offered to companies each year to hire workers from overseas.
“Where it becomes very slippery is that some of those companies are not quite legitimate or the companies themselves are legitimate, but once they actually recruit the people, they’ll subcontract the services to companies that aren’t legitimate,” Dennis explained. “So the men and women that are responding to the recruitment in let’s say Moldova, or Ukraine, or Brazil, or wherever, think that they’re coming over here to work under a very legitimate visa for a legitimate company only to find out that their services were subcontracted out to another company that is going to use force, fraud, or coercion against them to keep them here and employ them and not pay them.”
Unlike sex trafficking, forced labor in businesses and domestic settings is usually not advertised online and is more difficult to detect other than in face-to-face interactions. As a result, for labor trafficking in general, tips from the community are the main source of leads for law enforcement.
“It takes increased awareness of not only the employers, but the other employees,” Dennis said. “Each tip that we have had that’s dealt with forced labor anywhere along the Gulf Coast has come to us by someone within the community seeing something,”
From Victim to Survivor
The support services that Liberty Church, Catholic Charities, and other Pensacola Coalition Against Human Trafficking members offer are part of a “victim-centered approach” to anti-human trafficking efforts increasingly advocated by the United Nations, the U.S. Department of State, Department of Homeland Security, and down the line through the various law enforcement agencies and service providers.
Developing an approach focused on supporting victims has proven to be essential to a survivor’s recovery. Allowing individuals who have escaped trafficking to feel secure enough to speak to law enforcement is also essential in identifying and arresting the responsible traffickers, whether that’s honing in on perpetrators working in more organized crime or, as is known to happen, a victim’s parent.
Necessary, immediate services for those rescued from trafficking include safe shelter, medical attention, food, clothing, counseling, and, if a victim has been trafficked from another country, immigration relief.
“Probably the biggest growing trend that has helped with the investigations of human trafficking is law enforcement’s understanding that they truly do need these social services,” Dennis said. “The more services that we can immediately give that victim and begin to allow law enforcement to treat that person as a victim, the more that person is willing to come forward and give the information that law enforcement needs to start the investigation.”
Distinguishing victims from criminals is also an important part of the process, and immigration relief is one piece of the puzzle. For victims of sex trafficking who are under 18 years of age, knowing they won’t be prosecuted for prostitution is another recent development.
Florida’s Safe Harbor Act, which went into effect in January 2013, changed laws regarding underage prostitution so that children can no longer be prosecuted for prostitution. The act also set up a system by which child victims can be sent to safe houses for protection and receive treatment.
Just as Dennis and anti-human trafficking advocates emphasize, the state and federal government is also advocating increased training and education as a means to recognize and report instances of possible human trafficking.
The state of Florida recently began encouraging business owners to undergo training with the same basic steps for all: education about human trafficking in general, identifying signs of human trafficking, and how to respond to and report a potential human trafficking situation. The state also recommended that training should become part of business contracts, particularly with supply chain and construction project managers.
However, it is an understatement to say that these efforts are just the first steps in eliminating human trafficking. The State Department reported that in 2012, law enforcement agencies identified over 46,000 human trafficking victims worldwide. Of those identified, approximately 7,600 were cases in the Western Hemisphere. As millions are estimated to be victims of trafficking at any given time, the need for a network of anti-human trafficking groups working to draw more attention to the issue and effect more rescues is evident.
“The more people are aware, the more victims we find, and the more we start sending the message that we’re going to put a stop to this, that we don’t want this happening in our town,” said Dennis, who believes recently heightening awareness coupled with increased understanding from the law enforcement and legal communities are the keys to moving forward. “If every town would wake up to it, understand the indicators, educate the public about it, and basically put that word out on the streets that we are not going to stand for this—law enforcement is going to chase you down, the prosecutor’s office is going to prosecute it, and the community itself is saying no to it—then all of a sudden, we start making a difference.”
How to Help:
For those interested in receiving training for themselves, a community group, or workplace, contact Brad Dennis with Called 2 Rescue and the Pensacola Coalition Against Human Trafficking at 850-525-4807 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Report What You See
If you have seen something you feel is suspicious and possibly trafficking-related, Dennis recommends calling the National Human Trafficking Resource Center at 1-888-373-7888. The hotline is a confidential, 24-hour, and toll-free outlet to report tips or request training and information about trafficking. You can also text INFO or HELP to BeFree (233733).