How Lakeland is responding to domestic human trafficking
Story by Brooklyn Lindsey & Kelly Green • Tina Sargeant
Her voice drew us in. The message, like a current of electricity, had the power to stir up curiosity and concern. It’s the type of awareness that doesn’t often allow us to
Sitting in the Polk Theater for the first “Light the Night” gala, we listened to Dara Maclean sing:
You are wanted
To every searching soul, look to the rising sun
If you’re lonely, hurting, gone too far
To the outcast you come as you are
For you, you are wanted, you, you are wanted
She leaned into the subject matter with a gentle yet tenacious passion, asking each of us to do our part, asking Lakeland to say something and do something more.
It was then that I remembered she was singing to those who weren’t in the room. She was singing to the victims of human sex trafficking. It was reminiscent of another environment that I experienced years before.
I was seventeen the first time I heard about children having their futures and their physical bodies stolen from them. I was listening to a well-known speaker describe a situation that threatened the fabric of our society. He told us about young children without a voice who are oppressed in something called modern-day slavery. He continued to tell us about a time when he took a big risk by inviting two young girls he met on the street into his hotel room where he was staying. With blank stares, the girls entered the room. What they didn’t know was that he was paying for an hour of their purity. He put children’s cartoons on the television, ordered food, and invited them to a temporary refuge. He admitted this probably wasn’t good for his reputation. But he knew he had to do something. As tears streamed down his face, he invited us to look into the future and to care about it.
I said “yes” in my mind that very moment; yes to being a voice for the voiceless. But for a long time I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know how to fight human trafficking. Subtly, I began to support organizations that were able to work toward ending human slavery. But, outside of giving financially, I was aware of little that I personally could do to contribute to changing things.
When I moved to Lakeland, the subject matter was closer to me than I ever imagined. What I didn’t see materializing was the interconnectedness of that story that called me to action as a teenager and another story that’s calling me to action as an adult in my own community. In the city of Lakeland.
I’d like to share that story with you by introducing you to my friend, Kelly Green.
Kelly is a wife and mom of two beautiful children. Her roots take her back to Syracuse, New York. Her life connected with a Lakeland life while in college which brought her here to our beautiful city. Over the years she has become more active in being a spokesperson and advocate for education and prevention surrounding sex trafficking happening in our city. She doesn’t shy away from it, because she knows it exists. She even flew to Southeast Asia to learn more about this systemic problem and possible solutions. Currently, she leads a local
task force for an organization called LOVE146. I could think of no one better to help tell this story.
Together we attended “Light the Night,” a fundraising gala to raise support for safe homes to be established in Lakeland. Currently there are none. We sat together, in our dresses, hair
done, hearts warmed, knowing that every person in the room was in agreement. These victims are worth our time and attention.
We learned that there is need for at least one hundred seventy-six safe-home beds for young women in need of rehabilitation and restoration from lives lived in the captivity of human sex trafficking. At the time of our meeting, only twenty safe-home beds exist in our entire state.
As we listened to Dara Maclean’s philanthropic power ballads ringing through the space of the Polk Theatre, we heard the story that our community must echo with tangible actions
stemming from genuine care and concern. But we have to know about the problem before we can be moved to action.
Through Kelly, I’ve learned some incredible things. She told me about a young woman standing outside a bar in the red-light district of Bangkok, Thailand, her stomach exposed,
long stretch marks visible across the skin. Her appearance tells the story of her dual role as both sex worker and mother.
She told me about a young girl in Manila, Philippines, giggling as she expresses the joy that being in school brings her. This girl glows with confidence as she talks about the possibilities of her future. Months before, soon after her rescue, this conversation could not have happened. Her wounds as a survivor of sex trafficking were too fresh.
She told me about a teenager sitting in a runaway shelter in Bartow, Florida, wondering what people would think if the truth of her past was ever exposed, her secrets revealed. Could anyone love her if they knew what she had done? Would anyone care, or would they turn the other way like so many others before? The girl sees no hope and returns to the life that has enslaved her before. In these true stories, Kelly revealed to me that there are some commonalities between Bangkok, Manila, and Lakeland. The trafficking stories remind us of our own vulnerabilities and need for liberation, and they quietly beg for our attention.
Imagine pulling out an extra chair, sort of like the one every family has stashed for those large holiday gatherings — except this chair is for the elephant in the room, the hurting in our city that exists and often goes unnoticed. Let us begin to muster up the courage to face the thing that no one person should ever have to face on their own. It’s difficult to write these words. Sex trafficking, modern-day slavery, is happening right here in the United States.
In our own Lakeland.
It preys upon the most precious gift of any community: our children. Even though it’s happening right under our noses, it’s still easy to miss. We may not be able to read the red flags
in the body language of a young girl craving attention. We may, with good intentions, disregard the indicators of abuse and keep going. We unintentionally make distinctions between “our” kids and “those” kids, missing the opportunity for them to be one and the same.
It’s uncomfortable learning about things like this. We admit — it’s scary. It may feel like there’s nothing we can do that will make a difference. But discomfort is a normal part of a generous and sacrificial life. Our discomfort is worth the freedom of another human being. Having a heart for those who have been exploited is important, and that heart is the gateway to action, where change can be realized.
It’s estimated that there are 199,000 incidents of sexual exploitation of minors annually in the United States.1 According to the Florida Department of Children and Families, in 2013, there were 940 Human Trafficking Hotline calls received with 720 associated with children.2 DCF also reported there were 176 confirmed cases of Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children (CSEC) in Florida for 2013.
What you have to know as you open up your mind to caring about this subject and the people it oppresses is that there is an existing effort to fight human trafficking in Polk County. Government agencies and law enforcement have led the way in providing training to their people on how to spot trafficking as well as changing the perception of young girls caught in trafficking as victims instead of offenders. Our community has the Polk, Highlands, and Hardee Human Trafficking Task Force, which collaborates with other organizations to develop best practices and ensure communication between groups that may see cross-over in working with at-risk youth.
Florida Baptist Children’s Home is one non-government organization that is a part of this task force. In 2013 they were approached by the state of Florida and asked if they would be willing to open a safe home for girls who had been trafficked throughout the state. There are only twenty beds open statewide for children/adolescents to receive specialized care to overcome the emotional impact of sex trafficking.4 As education becomes more prevalent and awareness grows, it is anticipated that calls for help and need for further investigation will increase. The organization immediately responded with an emphatic, “Yes.”
Research began immediately and plans formed. Their vision, “The Porch Light,” will be opened in 2014 for girls across Lakeland. Just like a parent who leaves the porch light on waiting for their little girl to return, this faith-based program symbolizes a light that shines so bright and a peace that will turn lives around. This program is still in need and actively pursuing $1.2 million in order for girls to find the hope and healing that they need. Florida Baptist Children’s Home “Light the Night” gala raised $435,000 for this important program. Kelly also told us of an important change in our Florida laws that make the need for safe homes even greater.
Consider this: While children caught up in commercial sexual exploitation should be protected by the law from prosecution, until recently, this has not been the case.
Florida is one of only eighteen states that have some sort of “safe harbor” law which protects victims from criminalization. In the past, girls caught with a “john” were arrested and
faced time within the juvenile justice system. This only reinforced what had been spoken into the hearts and minds of these young girls by their pimps — that police, in this scenario,
weren’t to be trusted. This new law only came into effect in January of 2013. It not only changed the way young women were viewed by law enforcement, from criminal to victim, but
also ensured that specialized services to victims would be provided.
The problem is that there are not enough beds available to accommodate all of the girls who are in need of these services. If there aren’t enough beds, then what happens to those who
can’t be currently served? This is what we are working to change, here and now, in Lakeland. It goes without saying that there is opportunity for us to do more than ever before. No matter what walk of life you are in, there is something each of us can do.
The first thing we can do is to get involved in prevention.
While caring for survivors is vital, we also want to prevent it from ever happening in the first place. Love146 Lakeland sees spreading awareness and education as one of the greatest ways to stand in the gap for young girls. It is a volunteer group of the international anti-trafficking organization Love146 (visit love146. org to learn more about the origin of their name).
Right now Love146 Lakeland is focusing on prevention and protection in the hospitality industry. Since so much trafficking occurs in hotels, they believe it’s imperative that these businesses know how to spot trafficking and report it. As there are at least fifty-five hotels within a twenty-mile radius of Lakeland’s city center, it’s our goal to approach each and every one of these hotels to offer training for their staff.
Partnering with Love146 Lakeland and being a part of the education program in the hospitality industry is just one small way to help us become a community that refuses to tolerate stealing the dignity of our youth through sexual exploitation. Next, everyone in Lakeland can be aware of the National Human Trafficking Hotline number (1-800-373-7888).
Another important task for us is to learn the warning signs of a person who is being trafficked or groomed for trafficking. You might see suspicious activity where you have the opportunity to act in someone else’s behalf by reporting it. If you interact with teenagers, there’s a good chance that you know kids who are at-risk. While runaways and those in foster care and groups homes are most often targeted, anyone craving attention is vulnerable.
THE “LIGHT THE NIGHT” GALA RAISED $435,000 TOWARD THE $1.2 MILLION NEEDED FOR FLORIDA BAPTIST CHILDREN’S HOME TO OPEN A SAFE HOME FOR GIRLS WHO HAD BEEN TRAFFICKED THROUGHOUT THE STATE.
• Inexplicable appearance of expensive gifts, clothing, or a new cell phone with a separate line
• Presence of a boyfriend/girlfriend who is significantly older
• Secrecy about whereabouts
• Withdrawal or lack of interest in previous activities
• Truancy from school
• Often sleeps in school
• Unaccounted-for time, vagueness concerning whereabouts, and/or defensiveness in response to questions or concerns
• History of emotional, sexual, or physical abuse
Another way to get involved is to begin to educate others. Share this story and begin educating your sphere of influence.
• Invite a Love146 speaker to come to your school, church, or after-school program. These events are springboards for discussions between teens and parents.
• Host a documentary-film screening about trafficking, with follow-up discussion.
• Read up on the subject as much as you can and become the resident expert on trafficking.
• Volunteer at an after-school program, runaway shelter, church ministry, mentoring program, etc. Invest in the lives of young people. It’s the greatest form of prevention.
• Support the Florida Baptist Children’s Home “The Porch Light” program. You can help financially (they have raised $435,000 of their $1.2 million goal to open safe homes in Polk county for girls who have been trafficked). You can also help through volunteerism. “The Porch Light” program is currently seeking female volunteers to go through training to work directly with trafficked victims. Contact: Vickie. Belcher@FBCHomes.org. To be placed on the general volunteer list for “The Porch Light” and to learn about the training opportunities in the coming months, email Volunteer@FBCHomes.org. Please indicate in the email that you would like to volunteer for “The Porch Light.”
• Be creative. Whatever your voice is, wherever you find you have influence, raise it for the sake of others.
I appreciate knowing where to begin and knowing what to do at this important time in Lakeland’s history. Will you join us as we begin to change the story?
There is no set formula for solving the problem of sex trafficking. As one member of our community suffers, so we all suffer. We share joy, and we share pain. Our liberation is tied together with others, as what we do affects those around us. We are connected to each other as well as responsible for each other.
Knowing this story and sharing this story keeps us motivated and held accountable to stay involved, even when it seems little progress is being made.
Hopeful communities reach outward to those on the margins, even when it feels awkward. We have the potential to become active peacemakers, sowing peace within our community. Our involvement dispels the myth that these young women and men are in their situation because they want to be and like what they do. This is our desire as Love146 Lakeland, Florida Baptist Children’s Home, law enforcement, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and Lakeland’s neighborhoods and families join these efforts.
There is a great hope.
There is rescue.
There is relief.
There is restoration.
That hope is inside us and works through us — reaching out with a light that leads the hurting home.
I now know that telling this story is my personal “yes” to fighting human trafficking. What will your “yes” look like? Collectively, we have what it takes to help those who have felt invisible to know that they are indeed wanted.
If you have any questions, would like to book a speaker, or for help planning events, email Love146 Lakeland: email@example.com
“The Porch Light”
For more information about Florida Baptist Children’s Home safe-home program, “The Porch Light”, call (863) 687-8811, or visit fbchomes.org/porch-light