Florida legislators take up cause of trafficked foster care children, and go after scofflaw hotels

Proposed laws to protect foster children from sex traffickers and to force hotels to obey anti-trafficking laws are sailing toward approval in the Florida Legislature.

A bill (SB 1690) filed by Republican Sen. Blaise Ingoglia of Spring Hill targets institutions that are complicit in sex trafficking — and was inspired by the South Florida Sun Sentinel’s Innocence Sold series.

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The Sun Sentinel series and accompanying Felonious Florida podcast season found that the state’s foster care system funnels children into the sex trade, hotels in Florida get away with thousands of violations of an anti-trafficking law, and sex-trafficking survivors are treated like criminals.

A spokeswoman for Ingoglia, Yohana de la Torre at Upper Hand Strategies, said the senator, a former chairman of the Florida Republican Party, was too busy with the legislative session to be interviewed, but “I did want to let you know the things that sparked this bill are the investigative pieces you all have run.”

Although several bills have been filed this session to address sex trafficking, many have died at the committee level for lack of support from legislative leadership or rank-and-file lawmakers. But with Republican-sponsored bills in both chambers, and support from Attorney General Ashley Moody, this slate of reforms appears to have good odds of passage by the time the legislative session ends May 5. The measure has passed unanimously in committees in both chambers, and passed the Senate on Thursday.

Ingoglia’s bill would:

  • Address the sex trafficking of youth in group care. Group foster homes, which often house teenage girls who couldn’t be placed in family-style homes, would have to post signs warning of the dangers of trafficking, encouraging foster youth to report it, and providing phone numbers for them to do so. At group “safe houses” for foster youth who’ve been sexually exploited in the past, annual trafficking education would be required for the foster children. In addition, the safe house operators would have to hire a trained security individual to detect possible trafficking activity and respond when a child is missing, as well as coordinate with law enforcement.
  • Hold hotels accountable for their role in facilitating human trafficking by imposing fines on establishments that do not comply with state anti-trafficking laws. The laws require hotels to train employees to recognize and report trafficking for sex or forced labor. Currently, hotels can repeatedly violate the law and never face a fine, the Sun Sentinel reported. The proposed law shortens the time hotels have to correct staff-training and awareness requirements from 90 days to 45, and sets fines at $2,000 a day for second or subsequent violations.
  • Create state regulation for adult “safe houses,” which are group homes for sex trafficking victims and their children. They’d have to be licensed by the state and offer a minimum standard of services to help victims heal and to prevent exploitation of them or their children. A legislative staff memo says there are at least 13 in the state now, and reports from Orange County outlined complaints about a safe house there.

In the House, the bill (HB 1557) is sponsored by Rep. Michelle Salzman, an Escambia County Republican. Salzman, in a House committee meeting, told her colleagues the bill “empowers freedom.” She said the state would pick up the tab. The bill appropriates $463,000, mainly for technological improvements at the Department of Children & Families to implement the new laws.

Sen. Lauren Book, the Democratic leader in the Senate from Davie, said she was glad people are paying attention to trafficking victims. She had introduced a bill (SB 692) to impose fines on repeat-offender hotels, a bill she said was sparked by the Sun Sentinel series, but her bill had no House companion and appeared dead. Ingoglia revived it by incorporating it into his. It was added to Salzman’s House version this week.

“There’s a lot of bad that has come from this session,” Book said, “but there’s potential if we keep at it and grind it out for some real good.”

In a House subcommittee meeting on April 12, Orange County Rep. Bruce Hadley Antone, D-Orlando, called it a “great bill.” He said he once helped start a group foster home and trafficking issues threatened it.

“We had some sexual trafficking victims who were 15 and 16 years old,” Antone said, “and just their mere presence endangered the lives of other foster kids as well as the house parents.”

Tomas Lares, founder and president of United Abolitionists to Stop Human Trafficking, based in Orlando, told the Sun Sentinel the lack of standards has made Florida the “wild west” for adult safe homes.

“Your aunt could have a dream last night that she’s supposed to open a safe home in the state of Florida, and she could,” he said. “That’s very frightening because I think the majority are well-intended, with big hearts. A lot of faith-based individuals open them.”

“We’ve seen them over the years — open … raise a million dollars, close. It’s been a circus. And so we need standards, we need certification, we need oversight.”

Marianne Thomas, a trafficking survivor who founded My Name My Voice, a Fort Myers-based group that works with survivors and provides training, said the bill could allow the state to crack down on badly run adult safe houses operated by organizations that are in it for the money.

“It’s going to set out some standards, and right now there are no standards for adult safe homes,” she said. “It will be holding those adult safe homes accountable just as the minor safe homes are. And so this would eliminate places who are in it for financial gain or are in it to really exploit survivors as they exit the life.”

Badly run safe houses, for example, typically lack transitional programs to help survivors re-enter society, she said.

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“There’s not a standard for what happens after a safe home because after a safe home people are not typically ready for traditional society. They still need a step-down process. And so the best safe homes also have transitional housing.”

Brittany Wallman can be reached at [email protected] or 954-356-4541. Find her on Twitter @BrittanyWallman Send news tips to the investigations team at [email protected]


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