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SWFL organizations partner to end Human Trafficking in Immokalee

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The Shelly Stayer Shelter in Immokalee has served 44 victims of human trafficking since 2014. (Courtesy: Shelly Stayer Shelter)

Every year there is an estimated 14,500 to 17,500 people who are trafficked into the United States according to the U.S. Department of State.

Alina Donahue was one of them.

“I never endured any childhood trauma. I had literally the perfect life,” Donahue said. “A student 4.0, had great things going for me.”

She said her life changed one day when she took a study break.

“I went out on out on the town with a few girlfriends and that’s where I met my trafficker, but because we had mutual friends in common, I felt safe,” said Donahue. “He was reading me, he was feeling out the situation. ‘How naïve is she? How much can I control her?’ And things like that.”

Donahue said she never expected to be trafficked by someone she knew.

“I was pretty much groomed to be trafficked by my trafficker. And it was someone that, you know, I fell in love with,” she said.

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Donahue was trafficked for a total of eight months, and by luck, left the industry.

“I, you know, 10 years later, I can say thanks to law enforcement, but back then I didn’t see it that way. I was actually arrested for unrelated charges,” she said.

Donahue said her trafficker gave her the option to commit illegal acts or continue to see ‘Johns,’ which are anonymous individuals that solicit and purchase people for sex.

“To me, I was in survival mode,” she said.

Florida is the 3rd highest trafficking destination in the country, with half of all victims younger than 18 years old, according to the Florida Department of Health in Collier County. In Collier County, the numbers are sky-high compared to other cities.

“Florida is the third state with the most human trafficking,” Janette Lopez said, the Immokalee residential manager for the Shelly Stayer Shelter.

She said Collier County’s human trafficking rate is the highest compared to the rest of Florida. “It’s about 80% as opposed to other cities where it might be 20 or 30%.”

Human trafficking is a human rights violation and a form of modern-day slavery that involves exploiting a person for labor, services, or commercial sex through force, fraud, or coercion.

The Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office said Florida is a hot spot for trafficking because of attractions like beaches, its large cities, and the proximity to other countries.

The Shelly Stayer Shelter helps provide a safe place for the victims from human trafficking. The shelter offers resources to obtain necessary services like housing, clothing and therapy curriculums dealing with the victim’s experiences.

“Right now they’re doing a 27-week curriculum with them and it’s dealing with PTSD, trauma, sexual abuse,” Lopez said.

The Shelter for Abused Women and Children hosts two confidential sites, one in Naples called the Beau Venturi Home and one in Immokalee called the Shelly Stayer Shelter. The Immokalee Shelter has two programs for domestic violence and human trafficking. The human trafficking shelter has dorm-like rooms with eight beds.

The Shelly Stayer Shelter in Immokalee offers dorm-like rooms for victims of human trafficking.

Right now, the shelter is hosting support for two victims of human trafficking; one victim has been at the shelter for about 8 months, and the other victim for a year.

The shelter has served 44 victims of human trafficking since 2014. Most of these were victims of sex trafficking.

“It’s very prevalent and also very hush,” Lopez said. She said the cases reported doesn’t represent the high numbers in Immokalee. “There’s a lot of it going on in here in Immokalee and everyone’s aware of it, but no one’s willing to say anything about it.”

Donahue is a victim advocate for the center. She said she uses her experience to act as a guide to coach, council, and help newer survivors with simple skills.

“I remember there was a certain survivor of human trafficking, as her case was so severe that she, she wouldn’t eat because her trafficker wouldn’t let her eat,” she said. “So I remember feeding her, this is someone that was in her 20s, and I remember feeding her just to show her that it’s okay.”

It's very prevalent and also very hush
Immokalee Residential Manager Janette Lopez

The Collier County Sheriff’s Office (CCSO) aims to put a stop to the underground industry.

CCSO partners with non-government organizations like the Shelter for Abused Women Children, which is the primary non-governmental partner and treatment facility for human trafficking victims.

The sheriff’s office is also part of the Federal Human Trafficking Task Force for the Middle District of Florida, which is in partnership with the Attorney General’s Office and the United States Attorney General based out of Fort Myers.

Sgt. Wade Williams is the supervisor of the Special Crimes Bureau-Exploitation Section in Collier County and is responsible for training for the Missing Persons Unit, the Human Trafficking Unit and the Internet Exploitation Unit.

“Human trafficking is a highly underreported crime, just like any other crime of exploitation or sexual abuse of children, that sort of thing is typically very underreported. It’s difficult to know how much is actually occurring,” said Sgt. Williams. “But I can tell you that we get approximately, it varies by the year and about 15 to 30, somewhere between there, allegations of reports of human trafficking, which our detectives will investigate. Some of those are unfounded.”

Sometimes, CCSO is unable to establish if there was human trafficking occurring either because there is limited information or the victims are not cooperative. Other times, the human trafficking unit is able to confirm human trafficking.

“It’s usually a handful of cases that actually get confirmed maybe two, three or four a year that actually get confirmed in Collier County,” Sgt. Williams said.

Reading the Numbers
A report from the Human Trafficking Institute provides information about demographics of defendants charged in human trafficking cases on the Federal scale.

The amount of reliable information provided in publicly available documents regarding a defendant’s demographics is also incredibly limited.

In 2021, 100% (157) of victims in new sex trafficking cases were female. In contrast, 8% (2) of victims in new forced labor cases were female, compared to 92% (23) who were male.

While the proportion of female victims in sex trafficking cases has traditionally been high, the gender breakdown in forced labor cases has varied.

Sgt. Williams said CCSO has the main goal to offer support to victims.

“We’ve developed a sort of a model which is a victim-centered approach, which will focus on first and foremost identifying and providing victim services to get them out of the life, or the situation that they’re in,” Sgt. Williams said. “If we’re able to make a prosecution, which is our secondary goal, that’s sort of the ‘icing on the cake’ to rescuing the victim, but human safety or person safety, obviously, is first and foremost.”

After CCSO becomes aware of a victim, the human trafficking unit makes sure the victim gets referred to the Shelter for Abused Women and Children.

“Shelters usually will call their victim advocate, they actually have a survivor, who was great at talking to these girls that are involved in that domestic sex trafficking that we can call out and actually relate to them even better than we can.”

Trafficker’s Methods of Operation

There are multiple ways that traffickers approach their methods of operation. Foreign or domestic, labor or sex trafficking victims all have different methods of recruitment and retention.

Victims experience unique vulnerabilities based on their age and gender.

While anyone could become a victim of human trafficking, Sgt. Williams said that traffickers prey on those who have vulnerabilities. These factors can come in different forms like living in unstable situations or immigration status.

Sgt. Williams said those involved in human trafficking select their victims based on three factors in a hierarchy: vulnerability, availability and desirability. Traffickers are willing to sacrifice desirability for an available victim, and availability for a vulnerable victim.

“They will make that put themselves in a situation or deliberately go after that victim because of their vulnerability and make them available somehow,” he said.

Foreign victims and domestic victims are also threatened with different tactics. Sgt. Williams said most victims are foreign in Immokalee.

“Usually what we see with foreign victims that they are vulnerable, because they’re illegal status and they’ve been kind of threatened and scared by the individuals who many times are the ones that are the coyotes that help them across the border illegally,” Sgt. Williams said. “They end up in a situation where they’re kind of fish out of water. They use a lot of different tactics with them, that include threatening them about local law enforcement, because they, they’re distrustful the police anyway, from their home countries.”

For domestic sex trafficking victims, there are a different set of factors and vulnerabilities. Sgt. Williams said manipulative dating and prostitution later can evolve into a case of sex trafficking.

“The reality of prostitution is that many of it does involve violence and things that would be considered coercion under our statute, which is what defines that human trafficking,” Sgt. Williams said. “It’s a special kind of offender… and seasoning processes, all the techniques and methods that they use to identify and get a victim to keep them under their control,” he said.

In most sex trafficking cases, the traffickers ‘season’ their victims, which is when a trafficker uses all the techniques to identify and get a victim to keep them under their control.

“They become a date to them– that’s called the Romeo approach, that’s usually most effective with teen girls. So they’ll start dating the girl, they won’t even tell them they’re a pimp to begin with, because that’ll scare the girl away,” said Sgt. Williams. “You identify their needs, identify their vulnerabilities, and you fill those needs and vulnerabilities. exploit the vulnerabilities.”

“He’s grooming her, without her even knowing that she’s being groomed. He’s finding out everything about her. Everything about the family as the prince charming. And once he has all that information, then he uses that against them,” said Lopez.

Sgt. Williams said that if the victim resists, traffickers use the ‘Gorilla approach’ which is a violent encounter where the trafficker will start bonding everyday moments with trauma

“Like almost like Stockholm syndrome, where you become like, attracted to your captor in that particular case, sort of like that, where it creates a sense of appreciation that they didn’t kill you,” he said.

Most victims repeat the cycle multiple times, even if their trafficker gets arrested.

“They’ll end up with another path, because that’s all they’ve ever known,” Sgt. Williams said. “They’ve usually checked out very early in life… many of them haven’t graduated school and are drug addicts. They kind of just keep doing what they’ve already known, and so it becomes very difficult.”

Identifying a victim is extremely important because after a couple years, the victims’ life is endangered.

“Their lifespan is not very long, I would say, probably 10 or 12 years involved in the life in their great risk of death at that point. But they can either reach out, by contacting law, if we would prefer, they contact us directly, because we can get service to them quicker,” he said.

The trafficking world online

Because some illicit businesses’ websites were taken down, it disrupted the traffickers’ ability to advertise. This has caused a blockage for traffickers.

Traffickers have been using the internet to advertise escorts. An escort is paid to go on a date with a client, and usually to engage in sex acts for money.

Sgt. Williams said there has been a decline in the numbers in past years due to the taking down of underground websites where many advertisements were happening.

“I do believe there has been a pace, somewhat of a decline. And in the past, I would say five to seven years, partially due to the taking down a site backpage.com, which is where a lot of the advertisements were happening. And it kind of decimated the online escort advertisement area,” he said.

Increasing Awareness

Lopez said that awareness is important to help put a stop to the problem. With foreign victims in Immokalee, it is especially important to spread awareness so victims know the appropriate authorities to contact.

“We know that it’s happening [in Immokalee]. And we’re trying, we’re trying to make awareness there as well. And it’s been a little challenging because it’s, it’s a small town. So, a lot of it is being kept under the radar. And it’s very difficult to to catch them in the stand,” said Lopez.

“They can reach out directly to law enforcement, they can call the National Human Trafficking Hotline,” Sgt. Williams said.

The Collier County Board of County Commissioners presented a proclamation January 10, 2022 in recognition of National Slavery and Human Trafficking Month. Accepting the proclamation from left were CCSO Special Crimes Bureau Sgt. Wade Williams, chief executive officer for The Shelter Naples, Linda Oberhaus, chief executive officer for The Shelter Naples and CCSO Special Crimes Bureau Lt. Jason Wrobleski. CCSO partners with The Shelter to connect human trafficking victims with the services they need.

He said there’s usually a delay of information getting to the Sheriff’s Office if victims contact the hotline first, so it is better to call law enforcement directly. Victims can also call the Shelter for Abused Women and Children if they prefer.

To receive help, contact the National Human Trafficking Hotline 1 (888) 373-7888, text ‘HELP’ or ‘INFO’ to 233733, or visit http://humantraffickinghotline.org.