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Human trafficking: not just a third world country problem
By PENNY FLETCHER
SOUTH COUNTY – When June Wallace attended a meeting of her Soroptimist group in April 2009 she had no idea her life was about to change forever.
At that meeting of the international organization dedicated to the betterment of women, Linda Smith, a former U.S. Representative from the state of Washington, spoke about child trafficking and prostitution in the United States.
Since then June has worked against trafficking and won many awards. Having moved to South County earlier this year, she is now beginning to raise awareness locally speaking to groups, and is planning an awareness event at the United Methodist Church in Sun City Center in January, which is Human Trafficking Awareness Month.
“I had no idea this was a problem in our country,” said June. “I always thought this was the kind of thing that happens in third world countries like India or South America.”
But Smith told the group about a government grant given by the U.S. Justice Department that produced a report stating that there are between 100,000 and 300,000 children in the United States trafficked each year. The average age is 13, and although some of them are taken for forced labor, especially in lower socio-economic regions (with California, Texas and Florida being the hottest spots) most are taken for sex and prostitution.
June’s statements were verified by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (www.missingkids.com). The Tampa office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation was also contacted for this story.
Detective Morales of the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office explained the difference between human smuggling and human trafficking. Human smuggling is the charge when a person is brought into the United States illegally, while human trafficking always refers to the sale of someone in the U.S.
“We had one case in the south end of the county where a girl was being held in a house used for prostitution. It was text book. She was locked in a building with boarded up windows and a padlock on the front door. They took her child to a remote central Florida location and told her she’d never see him again if she didn’t do as they said when a neighbor alerted us that something was wrong in the building and she was found.”
Most of the people involved were arrested and some fled, Morales said.
“People don’t realize these things happen in this country,” June said. The day she heard Smith speak she joined the cause and now serves as the facilitator of The Tampa Bay Community Campaign Against Human Trafficking that covers Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough Counties.
June moved to Kings Point in Sun City Center from Largo where she had been raising awareness of trafficking leading the 300-member grassroots community coalition and working with the St. Petersburg College Regional Policing Institute to undergird the work of the Clearwater/Tampa Bay Department of Justice Human Trafficking Task Force in the three-county area.
For this and her work with other organizations, including the United Nations Association of Tampa Bay, the Mid-Pinellas Chamber of Commerce, and 26 years with Soroptimist International, June was chosen that chamber’s Citizen of the Year in 2010.
“My eventual goal is to fund the building of a shelter for victims that are rescued,” June said. “That could be in dollars, land donations, any number of things. There are less than 100 beds in the whole country for these kids. A lot of people turn their backs because they don’t understand. Some of the kids may be kidnapped, and may even eventually escape. But others are brainwashed to work as prostitutes. People look at them on the streets, dressed by their pimps, and think they’re there by choice when they’ve really been beaten, starved and then ‘rewarded’ by pimps to get their loyalty. Some even come to believe they love their pimps or abductors, so the only way the system has to deal with them is as juvenile offenders.”
June has a diploma from the Florida Regional Policing Institute at St. Petersburg College and has arranged for trainers with that program to speak and give training at United Methodist Church in Sun City Center in January but a date has not yet been set.
Laura Heisler of the Center for Public Safety and Innovation at St. Petersburg College said their office has been giving training such as June’s since 2006 but as of July 2012, the funding for this project will run out.
“Groups will still be able to contact us for training but unfortunately we will no longer be able to offer it for free,” she said. Until July they will continue to provide free training to groups of more than 25 that call 727-341-4437.
June, a retired certified financial planner who had a private practice in Orlando before moving to Largo, has never before been involved in social work and describes this cause as her passion.
Originally from upstate New York, June is a widow with two grown children and two grandchildren. Her empathy for victims and their families keeps her going.
“My heart goes out to everyone who has been abducted or brought into this, but especially to the girls involved in the sex trafficking. It’s so easy for them to end up murdered or as suicides. Their average age is 13 and their life expectancy is only seven years (after the abduction).”
June will give presentations to civic and religious groups and any others who will listen. She is also hoping to catch the attention of fundraisers so she can start a project to build a shelter.
The January event will be a four-hour course entitled, “The Many Faces of Human Trafficking,” and will be given by two experts, Dewey Williams, retired commander of the Tampa Bay task force and Sandra Lythe, who works with the task force in the three-county area. Both are adjunct professors at RCPI (Regional Community Policing Institute) at St. Petersburg College.
The event is funded by World Relief, which is the victim’s services arm of the task force and is funded by the U.S. Department of Justice.
“The task force can’t do legislation or fundraising because it is funded by the government, that has to be done by a grass roots organization,” June said. Her hope is that local civic and faith-based organizations and houses of worship will ask for a presentation and become involved, either before, or after the January event.
“The whole thing is about awareness,” she added.
There are ongoing projects to help victims, such as SOAP, (Save Our Adolescents from Prostitution) which was founded by Theresa Flores, once a victim herself who managed to escape. Eventually June would like to see a SOAP project in South County.
Now a licensed social worker with a master’s degree in counseling, Flores’s SOAP project puts labels on bath soap and delivers it to motels, especially in areas where a lot of people will be gathering, such as national political conventions and sporting events.
The SOAP project is national and details about it are available on line at http://www.traffickfree.com/blog/2011/05/the-s-o-a-p-project.
“The victims often get to be alone in the bathroom, and can see the hotline number on the soap,” June said. The labels say “If you are being held against your will” and give a hotline number. There is always a chance that at some time they will be able to get to a phone and will know there is someone waiting to rescue them.
People who want to help, receive training or just find out more may call June on her cell phone, 727-688-0150 or email her at email@example.com.