She didn’t know she had been sex trafficked.

In a world where over 30 million people are enslaved today, and the average age of a girl entering the sex trade in the US is just 12 years old, you would think the rest of us would have a good idea of what that might look like. The movie Taken often comes to mind—a white upper-middle class girl being kidnapped and used for sinister purposes, held captive by lock and key. While that scenario does happen, the most common type of trafficking we see in the US looks a lot different. 

Resident Magazine spoke with a survivor of human trafficking from right here in Tampa Bay. We also spoke with Corporal Alan Wilkett of the Pasco Sheriff’s Office and Bill Cronin, President and CEO of the Pasco Economic Development Council to understand more clearly what the issue of human trafficking looks like in Tampa Bay, how we can protect our kids and what we can do to end it.

Christa Hernandez has a strong presence; she’s the kind of person you just know is nearby, even if you can’t see her. Seated at a conference table for our interview, she was poised, pensive and ready to share her story. She was ready to be vulnerable and share parts of her life with us. These parts of her life have caused her intense pain, have led her down paths she’d never imagined she’d go down and caused her to cross lines she never thought she’d cross.

RM (Resident Magazine): Tell me a little about your childhood.

CH (Christa Hernandez): I grew up in Lakeland, Florida, and my parents separated when I was 5 years old. My earliest childhood memories are of my father being abusive, verbally and physically, to my mom. When they separated, she pretty much was not around. He ended up getting custody of my two brothers and me, and life with my father was definitely not what it should have been for a child. He was a licensed hypnotist, and he would hypnotize my siblings and I and make us think that (the abuse) was a game, so there is so much that I have blocked out. Around 10 years old is when some of those memories started coming to me. He let me go stay with my mom for a short period of time. It was kind of like a game he would play like, ‘I’m going to let you go stay, and then I’m going to yank you back once you’re comfortable.’ It was his mind game between my mother and me.

In the sixth grade I was sexually molested by a summer recreation worker at an elementary school and myself and another girl came forward, and this guy ended up getting away with it. I was beginning to think that there was no safe place because nobody believed me, and nobody was there to protect me.

The next house we lived in is where the abuse got really extreme. My father would use stun guns on us and he would just beat us to bloody pulps. He had a recorder that would go on the phone, so we couldn’t call our mom or talk to anybody without him present. I wanted to talk to my mom, so I went in there one time and I tried to finagle with it. He knew because I didn’t know what I was doing with it, so when he came I remember him slapping me so hard to the ground that I had bruising so badly on my face that he couldn’t send me to school. It was just out of control there, but I believe that my mom at this point started realizing there was a lot going on. She called Child Protective Services, but my father would always show up before they would. He would let us know, ‘if you say anything, they’re going to throw you in foster care, and they’re going to separate all of you.’ At that point, we were all we had—my brothers, my sister and me. We always lied [to CPS] because we didn’t want to get separated. I guess they weren’t buying it this time; paperwork had been started to remove us from the house. My father found out and took us across state lines to South Carolina.

Back then, [CPS] didn’t cross state lines like they do now, so nobody knew where we were for 6 months. The abuse in South Carolina continued to get worse. He was verbally abusive and there was sexual abuse beginning to happen. He would chain my brothers to their bed to where they could only get to the bathroom. He was a raging alcoholic. It was really bad. I just knew he was going to kill me or hurt me very badly. When I was 16, I begged him to let me go live with my mom, so he had me load all my stuff up in garbage bags, and he had me go by train. When I arrived at the  train station dragging my garbage bags, my mother wasn’t there.

He had never called her and never even told her that I was coming.

Angels sent from God (an older couple) helped me and got me to my mom’s house without an address. My mom lived out of guilt because she wasn’t there a lot [growing up], so she tried to be more my friend than the nurturing mom that I needed. Coming from that strict environment, I went wild. I was very promiscuous; I was looking for love and acceptance in all the wrong ways. I became very sexual, and I had already been sexually abused. You tend to [lose] value in yourself because of what’s happened to you. I ended up leaving high school because she wasn’t enforcing it and my father ended up moving back to Florida. When I was 18, my father had a connection to a bar that I could get a bartending job in, and I’ll never forget him taking me shopping and saying, ‘the skimpier the better, Christa.’ The first night I went to work, he reached his hand down my chest and lifted everything up. [He said], ‘you’ll make more money like this.’ That was my normal. When I was bartending, they had dancers that would come in one night a week. They were short a dancer, so they asked me if I would fill in. Next thing I know, I’m in pasties and a thong having to dance around tons of men. I hated the way they were groping me and touching me, and the looks they would give, but there was also a false sense of empowerment and a false sense of acceptance, and there was a lot of money that was made. That was the only night that I did that.

[Soon after] I found out I was pregnant with my daughter, so I left that job and I moved to Clearwater with my mom.



Shortly after I had my daughter, we got a phone call from the Sheriff that my siblings had told on my father for sexual abuse. He was in jail, and we had to go get my siblings. When I spoke to him, he told me, ‘if you don’t get your siblings to recant, I’m going to hang myself, and it’s going to be all your fault.’ So, I did get them to recant. I was dealing with [the fact that] these are my siblings and this was my father. At the same time, my mom wasn’t very stable financially, so she would get evicted from place to place. I needed to provide for my daughter, and everything was spiraling out of control.

At this point, I was extremely broken, and entered into entered into the strip club; I had to find a way to provide for my daughter and family. Shortly after working at the strip club, a girl befriended me and started giving me free drugs, which made what I was doing a whole lot easier. After some time of coercing and giving me the free drugs, she asked me, ‘hey, will you drive me places? I’ll give you $50.’ In my mind, this was a great deal. I wouldn’t have to be in the back room doing private dances where I was being sexually assaulted; instead I could get out of here and make $50 quickly. I ended up driving her places for quite some time, and she would come out with tons of money. She told me she was just dancing for private parties or bachelor parties. She said, ‘You could do what I do, but you’ll need to speak with my boss.’ Eventually, I took the bait. The boss said, ‘We’ll send you to a regular and see if you’re capable of making the cut.’ You’re asking someone who was broken and vulnerable if I was capable of making the cut. Well, I was up for the challenge but at the same time had no idea what making the cut was. I was thinking that I was just going to go dance at a bachelor party. I can make that cut

I’ll never forget walking into that regular. He was a short, bald-headed, used car salesman, and he handed me $250 and said, ‘You need to call the boss, and let them know you’re here.’ I had money in hand, called the boss, let them know I was there, and they told me if I didn’t call them within 40 minutes, they would call me because then it was time to get ready and finish up. When I was supposed to meet them down the street and give them their part of the money. In that moment, I quickly realized there’s a whole lot more that’s expected of me to make the cut than just dancing. I started thinking, ‘how can I make the cut without having to do actual intercourse?’ I thought of ways that time, but unfortunately that wasn’t always the case. I ended up meeting the boss right after that call and gave them their part of the money, which was usually half of the money. Right when I gave it to them, they said, ‘we have somewhere else for you to go now.’ It was as if there was no saying no.

The next call they sent me on was to a popular golf resort. When I walked into that call, there were five guys. They had different rooms, and they were giggling and laughing as I came out of one room and was sent into another room. This night started the cycle of the boss sending me on up to ten calls a night sometimes. I wasn’t huddled down and chained or anything. It was more coercion and praying on my vulnerability. After three years, I ended up pregnant with my son from my boyfriend at the time. He didn’t know what I was doing. He thought I was only dancing.

RM: Was there a certain point in which you realized you weren’t necessarily in control of your own life and that the ‘boss’ or ‘manager’ was in control?

CH: When I was being sent out over and over again. When I would want to step away, they would say, ‘We’re going to blacklist you, tell your friends and family what you’re doing,’ because, of course, I wasn’t telling them. I had a whole elaborate story of why I was gone all night.  That was very early on, but then I lost myself in it. I became numb and had disassociated myself so much from it to basically survive.

RM: Where are your kids at this point in time?

CH: My kids were with me for most of it, as well as another little sister my mom had from somebody else. She came to live with me, so she would watch my kids while I was being sent out. When I got a DUI and got into some trouble, my daughter went with her father, and I ended up losing my son to his father’s mom. My kids were everything, and I wanted to be with them. I knew I didn’t want this life anymore. I wanted to change it. When I got out of jail and went to my mom’s, I begged to stay there, and she said yes, but that I had to get employment. I started to go look for employment, and there was a phone place that was within walking distance from my mom’s. I walked into it, and the first part of the interview was to listen to a phone call. It sounded like an [adult film], and I was like, ‘what is this?’ In the second part of the interview, they had you do different accents. I had walked right into a phone sex call center, and I didn’t have any idea. I thought I was out of [the industry life]. I thought I was going to get a regular job. Instead, I took the job, I got an apartment and I was trying to do everything I needed to do.

At this point in her life, Christa was working on getting her kids back, addicted to prescription drugs and was pulled back into the commercial sex industry by someone she met at the call center. Broken, with no value for herself or her body, no high school diploma, a criminal record and a need to provide for her family, the ‘industry’ was all she knew and the only option she felt she had. Christa spent the next twenty years of her life in the seedy back-room world of the commercial sex industry. The domination aspect of this world appealed to her, in part because she felt like she was in control of the situation and she felt like she was ‘getting back’ at men. During this period she regained custody of her two children.

RM: When did life begin to shift for you?

CH: I went to one of my son’s baseball games, and one of the moms asked me if I wanted to go to church. I thought, ‘absolutely not. Jesus wants nothing to do with me.’ But I was very good at playing the part. I wanted to look like the good baseball mom, so I said yes. When I walked into that church, [Jesus] grabbed a hold of me right then and there. There was no running from His presence. For two years, I was in the church holding onto this big dark secret of still being in the industry while growing in my relationship with Christ, which became very conflicting. I would be in my Bible or listening to worship music, and the phone would ring and I’d have to instantly snap into this other character.

Through all that conflicting guilt, shame, and trying to work through it all, I attempted suicide.

It was getting to a point that was just too hard. During that time, God started placing in my heart that I was going to go back and reach women where I was, once I was out, but I didn’t know how.

One night, I did a Google search for ‘women who loved Jesus but worked in the sex industry support group’, and this organization popped up out of California called Treasures. I about fell over when I saw it. They sent me a free care package, which had Scars and Stilettos, a book by Harmony Dust. She founded Treasures, and it was about her getting out [of the sex industry].

Hope began to rise in me, and I thought, ‘Okay, someone has made it out of this.’

They set me up with a mentor and she was the first person I could really open up to about all the good, the bad, the ugly. For about a month, she encouraged me to go to one of my Pastors at church. When I finally went to him, I was nervous. I didn’t know what to expect. I watched Joyce Meyer throughout my whole spiritual growth for those two years. I wrote my testimony out to her and when I went to see him, I asked, ‘can I please just read this to you,’ because I didn’t even know how to say the words on my own. At the end, it was very emotional. He said, ‘we love you. Jesus loves you, and we’re going to walk with you through this season of your life.’ My Pastor gave me the tools to Celebrate Recovery, job finders, and all kinds of resources but never once did he say, ‘leave. You need to leave this.’ He just let that be my choice.

RM: Did you feel like you could trust the Church?

CH: I didn’t feel like I could trust them because I still had that shame and guilt on me, that I didn’t belong. I felt that if they knew the real me, they would throw me out. My son was very involved in their youth group, and I thought they would throw him out. He loved it there. There were a lot of reasons why I didn’t say anything for so long, but I finally did. I started attending all these different classes, and I knew that I was going to get out of the industry. About a month after I spoke with my Pastor, my mother and I volunteered at a Joyce Meyer conference. It was at her conference where she shared the story of The Prodigal Son, and

I could audibly hear God say, ‘come on, Christa, you can do this. I love you. That industry is not your provider, I am.’ I loved Christ, and I loved God, but it was at that moment that I had a revelation of His love for me. That was the game changer.

I had $70 to my name, and I told my mom, ‘when I get home, I’m leaving this life.’ I came home and on the adult site that I worked off of, I put my real name, my story, and why I was leaving the industry. Instantly, I was getting messages from girls who were saying, ‘thank you so much! This has helped me. I’m leaving.’ Old customers said, ‘I’ve struggled with my faith and doing this for so long.’ I ended up ministering to these people who were my customers and other girls on the site and yet I had no idea what God was preparing me for during that time. I left the industry November 21st, 2010, but I was still on prescription pills. December 6th, I felt like the Lord said to put that down, and I did. I came off everything cold turkey. On December 8th, I was going to the hospital in an ambulance, violently ill because I had been on a lot of medication. They tried to give me smaller doses, and I was like, ‘absolutely not. I’ll get through this.’ I came home, and for weeks, I just laid in the bed. I would just say, ‘greater is He that’s in me,’ or ‘I can do all things in Christ who strengthens me.’ The Xanax withdrawal started getting really bad, which is a hallucinating withdrawal. I went to go see my primary care doctor, and they said, ‘we can’t touch you, you’re too far into your withdrawals. It could hurt you if we were to do anything. You need to go to a detox.’ I finally broke down and called the detox place. They told me the same thing. Within minutes, my phone rang and it was a lady from the church. She said, ‘I just feel like God wants me to tell you that you’re coming through the wilderness into the Promised Land. He’s your great physician, and He has His hand on you.’ I wasn’t instantly better, but hope was rising.

I slowly got better and I ended up getting a sales position, and I was really good at it. I appreciated money more even though I was only making a small amount and I made it last. God just really worked out every detail. In 2012, Treasures was going to be in Miami with Strip Church. They were going to be doing training for women who wanted to go in and reach [other girls]. Strip Church is a network of women who have strip and have strip club ministries. Treasures and the strip club ministries partnered for their training in Miami, and I knew it was time for me to go. That’s where Loving You Where You’re At was born.

The thing is, I didn’t recognize myself as a trafficking victim or survivor of trafficking until sitting in that training. It’s like that for many of the women that we see. 

They don’t even identify that they are being trafficked. You don’t even realize when you’re in the midst of it, but that’s what’s happening to you. It took 20 years of that life, being out, and being in a training to recognize this is what happened to me.

I didn’t choose to be a prostitute. 

This is what happened. I was basically groomed for it my whole childhood. No little girl dreams of growing up and being sexually exploited. Something goes terribly wrong along the way.

RM: Tell me about Loving You Where You’re At.

CH: We are a 501c3 nonprofit organization. We are faith-based support and outreach to women working in the commercial sex industry, as well as victims of sex trafficking. You can’t very well go in to the strip club and love on those girls without running into victims of sex trafficking. Currently, we go into twelve strip clubs in Tampa and Pasco. We’ve also added 3 brothels out of Pasco that we go into; these are Asian massage parlors that are really brothels. We go every month, and we take in a little girly gift to brighten their night and a card that lets them know, ‘precious woman you are loved, valued, and purposed. Support is only a phone call away.’ If somebody would have come in when I was working in the club, hitting me over the head with a Bible, I think that I would have been offended by it and felt judged by it. We really just go in there and reach them by building intentional relationships, and I think that makes all the difference. We talk about life with them and we love them unconditionally. We want them to know that this is unconditional, no-strings-attached love. These girls aren’t used to receiving a gift without somebody expecting something in return. This is huge for them. It’s consistency; that’s not something they’re used to in that life. They don’t trust easily. When they start seeing you coming on a regular basis and bringing them this fun little girly stuff, they start reaching out to us, and we start mentoring them. We never tell them to leave [the industry] because if you take away choice, you take away love, so we love them whether they stay in or whether they come out.

RM: How can people support Loving You Where You Are At?

CH: For the gift bags, we’re always taking donations of anything that’s fun and girly: make-up, jewelry or anything that would brighten a girl’s day. We need volunteers – right now we’re getting to a point where we need more administrative volunteers. If you are a licensed trauma therapist, we need your help. These women that we’re reaching need trauma therapy. If you have a detox place, and we haven’t already connected, we need these kinds of connections. We definitely need funding from monthly partners. In addition to doing the clubs, we have a drop-in center in Pasco, and we have one in Tampa. These are places where the girls can come to us whether they’re having a good day or a bad day, or they can come to us for resources if they need help with something. We do survivor led support groups there. Our goal for the end of 2017 is to have a transitional home for the women, because we find that’s the biggest need.

RM: Would you say that most of the girls in this business are on drugs of some kind?

CH: Most of what we see, especially in Pasco, is that they’re on drugs. It’s just sad because many of them are being trafficked solely to stay high. It doesn’t look like what you might think it would look like. A lot of people don’t envision someone being trafficked as having their own apartment, but really a lot of them do. These pimps and traffickers keep them by supplying their drugs, so the women are going in, dancing, and doing whatever in those back rooms to make money, and a lot of it’s going right back to the traffickers. The trafficker is getting to keep the majority of the money, and they just make sure the girls stay high. It’s a huge problem. Drugs definitely go hand-in-hand.

They’ll usually get someone off the street—a runaway. Usually what it looks like is at 2 to 4 years old, the girl is sexually abused, or the boy because boys are trafficked too, and she’s told, ‘you should be ashamed of yourself. This is all your fault. You better not tell anybody.’ Then at about 12 to 14 years old, she ends up running away—that’s the average age right now that they’re taken. A lot of time it’s not a snatch you up type situation, like most people think. It’s more of an emotional pull, praying on their vulnerabilities. Within 24 to 48 hours, usually the runaway is approached by a trafficker, and he’s pretty much going to woo them with, ‘what’s wrong, baby girl? I can give you a place to stay and feed you.’ This girl is already looking for acceptance and love, and so he gets her. He swoons her and then all of a sudden, it’s ‘time to pay me back,’ and they’re either being sent into the strip clubs, or they’re being put on Backpage.

RM: What common characteristics did you find in those being trafficked and doing the trafficking?

CH: Usually there’s been some sexual abuse, so they are very vulnerable. They come from foster care a lot of times. That’s a huge target, the foster care system. I spoke to a group of girls that are castaways; they’re in a group home where the foster system won’t even take them, so they’re just in this home. It was heart-wrenching when I shared my story with them, and I had all these young girls coming up to me telling me these scenarios they’ve been in where they’re being approached by traffickers. They’re broken. It’s usually not a happy home life; something goes wrong to get them there. They’ve become very vulnerable and their self-esteem is low. The traffickers are professionals, these are mastermind criminals, so they know what to look for instantly. A big thing that’s happening now is social media. We’ve got the girls, or boys, who are getting on there, and they’re taking cute little pictures, and these traffickers are all over social media. They will message them and make them think that they could be this great model, and the girl or boy falls for it. The next thing they know, they’re being flown to Vegas or Miami, and when they get there, they realize that it’s not modeling; it’s porn or they’re being trafficked. A lot of times, it’s manipulation, lying, and making them think they look great, or they have ‘the look’. They think it’s just modeling, and they’re building their ego and using fraud to do it. Right now, media is making it look so sexy to wear barely anything. Then you’ve got this young girl, and she has a cute picture up, and somebody is approaching her that she could have this modeling career, and before you know it they take the bait and they’re gone.

RM: If we were to speak to parents right now of girls and boys who are on social media in the early teenage years, and they’re approached by somebody saying they could be a model, what would you suggest the parent do?

CH: I would block that person, so they’re not able to contact the child. I would write down the information, get the URL. I know early teenagers, or even younger, don’t want a parent monitoring their social media, but I’m letting parents know that it is vital that their social media is watched over. This is one of the number one ways that the traffickers are getting our kids.  I would watch what they’re doing. Who are they communicating with? Are their behaviors changing? Are they starting to dress a different way? Are they starting to withdraw more? Are they withdrawing from their friends, spending more time on social media? They could be getting ready to leave with somebody, so just monitor their social media, and if you see it, report what you’re seeing and block them from the child’s social media.

RM: What is a perception that people have that isn’t accurate about the industry?

CH: As far as the women who are in the strip clubs, a lot of people think they chose to be there. They stereotype these women and, in reality, nobody dreams of growing up and being sexually exploited. Something has gone wrong along the way. Then once they’re there, it becomes a trap. People will ask all day long, ‘why don’t they just leave?’ It’s not that easy. You’re in there, and you have to see and experience things, and you’ve crossed lines you never thought you’d have to cross. 89% of women said they wanted out, but they had no other means of survival. They become very drug addicted while they’re in there, so you’ve got that whole other issue going on, or they are being trafficked. These girls don’t want to be there. Over 90% of them were sexually abused as children. One of the things we ask the girls is, ‘what was your dream? Do you remember your dream as a little girl?’ Because if we can get them to remember their dreams and give them hope that it can still happen, that’s huge.

As far as trafficking, it’s not always what you think it is—being tied up and caged up—that happens, but more so it’s happening in your own backyard, in ways that you would never know is happening with your own children. We’ve run into situations were children still live at home, and they’re being trafficked, sneaking out at night and doing things for their trafficker. The misconception is that a lot of people compare it to the movie Taken. That’s not the case; that’s 1% of cases.

RM: What does it look like in town? What are some warning signs?

CH:  If you see something suspicious, look at him or her are they able to speak, or is somebody else speaking for them? Are they giving you eye contact, or are they holding their head down a lot? Do they have their own identification, or is somebody else holding their identification? For the younger kids, has there been a change in their behavior? Are there signs of physical abuse, such as burn marks or bruises? Are they more withdrawn? Are there signs of over-sexualized behavior? Are they showing signs of gang affiliation, preference for specific colors, displaying gang symbols, etc? Are they showing up with money or nice things that they didn’t have before? Definitely question where that’s coming from because a lot of these traffickers are going to woo them at first. They’re going to get them the nice things, get their nails done, get their hair done for them because they’re getting them ready. They get to the point where [they’re saying], ‘now you owe me.’

Some of the things that the traffickers can exhibit is: jealous, controlling, violent, significantly older than their female companions, promise things that seem too good to be true, encourages victims to engage in illegal activities to achieve their goals and dreams, buys expensive gifts, vague about their profession, pushy or demanding about sex, responsible for victims financial stability those are some traits of a trafficker. So, if you see this older man that’s hanging with a bunch of younger people, then you might want to alert the authorities.

RM: What does it look like in Pasco County?

CH: It doesn’t discriminate. It’s not just happening in the poor neighborhoods. It’s happening in our wealthy communities as well. If you’re a parent, look on Backpage to make sure you’re not seeing your child. If you see a strange tattoo that says something, like Cowboy, Daddy’s girl, or even a barcode, it’s probably someone who’s being trafficked because traffickers will brand their women. Watch out for strange tattoos that might be a symbol with a name, and if it’s a barcode, that’s definitely someone who is being trafficked. They’ll have a barcode on there with numbers so if this girl ever gets away, if somebody finds her, they can give the barcode and know who she belongs to.

RM: If someone suspects trafficking, what should they do?

CH: I would call local law enforcement. They could call the national hotline. Give us a call if you don’t feel comfortable with law enforcement, and we’ll pass the information on. I would definitely recommend passing it on as soon as you see it because they move around a lot.

RM: What have you learned about yourself as a result of the challenges you’ve faced?

CH:  I’m very strong. I’m a survivor. I used to feel like I wasn’t worthy when I was in that life, and I was less than, that I was an outcast to society, but I’ve learned that I’m not. I’ve learned that I can run a nonprofit organization with no ‘real’ education. I’ve learned that I have overcome a traumatic experience, and there’s hope; hope overflows out of me now, and that’s what I take back to these girls. I’m still excited to see the journey that [God] takes me on. I’ve learned that I’m enough; that I matter. I’ve learned that my past doesn’t define me. I’ve learned that if it wasn’t for those things that I went through, although I didn’t enjoy going through them, then I wouldn’t be doing what I am today, and I wouldn’t be able to impact lives.

RM: What’s your message to somebody who may read this who doesn’t have a sense of self-worth and may be headed down that path?

CH: At first this looks like a glamorous life, but I can assure you, it’s not glamorous. It’s going to take you down avenues and have you crossing lines you never thought you would cross. This is just what this life turns into. The average lifespan is only 7 years for a woman who’s in that life. I would recommend running as far as you can or contacting local authorities and letting them know the situation you are in. Know that you’re not alone. There are organizations, like my own, that are here and willing to help you. Understand that you are loved, valued, and you are purposed. There are great plans for your life, so this is not an avenue that you need to take. You are worthy.

Corporal Allen Wilkett, Human Trafficking Commission Member and Law Enforcement Representative, has been entrenched in the fight to end human trafficking in Pasco County for nine years. Resident Magazine spoke with him to get the details that as Wesley Chapel and New Tampa residents, you need to know.

RM: What is the commission for human trafficking?

Allen Wilkett (AW): The Human Trafficking Commission was designed to bring in areas of the county that could be vulnerable, such as tourism, hospitality, medical, emergency rooms, things of that nature. If they’re not vulnerable populations themselves or encompass vulnerable populations, they are certainly frontline. They’re seeing it and there’s the propensity for them to see it on a first-hand-in-the-trenches-type [situation]. The idea was to reach out and grab representatives from those segments of our community and bring us all together to tackle the issue from a legislative standpoint.

RM: What should the residents of this area know about human trafficking?

AW: One of the prime targets for a trafficker is places that attract the general public into large crowds. Any time there is a convention, a Super Bowl, a big sporting event, large crowds being gathered in, the traffickers target that to sell their property. I use that term in a general sense; they’re bringing in their victims to put them on the street, brothels, mobile brothels, strip clubs. They’ll ramp those up personnel-wise to accommodate these larger crowds that just came in. Wesley Chapel and New Tampa is just blowing up with new retail, subdivisions, new populations are coming in, and to a trafficker, that’s attractive. What we have to be aware of in our area is that we have to be on guard because we better believe that the trafficker has certainly put us on his radar as a place to begin to market his business more heavily. We have to come to grips with the fact that human trafficking is going on right here. Now, not later, not two years from now… it’s going on now. One of the things that we’ve seen is the housing of victims in some of our subdivisions. They’re taken by van down to Hillsborough or Pinellas or to 19 to be put out to the street, but they’re actually being housed in some of these local areas. We hear the rumblings of those types of things; we see the indicators, and we have to be aware that even though we live in an affluent, business-oriented, attractive place, for those very same reasons this type of criminal activity is looking to make [a business].

RM:  What are some ways that people can identify a person being trafficked, a pimp, or someone who is in that world?

AW:  As a general rule, we caution the public to look at four levels of control. Control is the largest component of what a trafficker is going to do to a victim; that means they’re going to control their behavior, their documents, their money, who they talk to and how long they talk to somebody. They oftentimes will step in and answer questions on their behalf; it will have the look of a parent-child relationship where the parent is domineering and is taking control of the actions, mood, behavior and money. Those control mechanisms are certainly the largest red flags that we have.

RM:  Can you give an example of a case that stands out to you?

AW: A particular female worked the strip clubs and drugs controlled her. She was actually introduced to drugs [by the trafficker], and they became a control mechanism for her. The other thing that was used to control her was her child and the threat against her child. ‘If you don’t do what we are telling you to do, we’re going to hurt your child.’ It was probably one of the most heart-wrenching things because you saw the mother’s love for that child, and then realized that the trafficker would use that as a means to control her. He knew that the mother had no other option, and it seemed like every other door was closed to her; she had no ties to the community that could come in and offer support at that point. The only thing that she saw in order to be able to sustain her own child was to do as she was told, or she’s going to lose her child. She’s already lost everything else—that became a control mechanism. She was made to do horrific things. What you hear oftentimes from these victims is that the only way they survive is to escape; their minds are someplace else while their bodies are still there. The most horrific crimes I’ve ever worked is human trafficking. I’ve had to do a lot of things in law enforcement and in my career; I’ve got the badges and the t-shirts to prove it, and I’ve never worked a darker crime than [human trafficking]—the toll that it takes on the humanity of a person…it’s beyond unbelievable.

RM:  What can people do to help?

AW: We have to end this crime. There are a number of things. Number one I would say is to educate oneself on what to look for, and if you begin to see those indicators, make the call. There’s a National Human Trafficking Hotline number, 888-373-7888; it takes seconds to call. Those couple of minutes on the phone reporting suspicious activity will trigger a task force response or law enforcement response and could save somebody’s life. Support local front-line organizations who are rescuing and restoring the victims. There are a number of those out there doing that. Things of that nature are lifelines to these organizations who are taking care of minor girls between the ages of 12 and 17, some who haven’t had their own underwear since they were three years old. To be able to go and pick out their own sheets and to be able to lie in a warm bed at night and not have the fear of being raped that night makes a world of difference. People can get involved by raising goods, raising money and volunteering time to these organizations on a local level.

Bill Cronin, President and CEO of the Pasco Economic Development Council has been involved in the fight to end human trafficking for five years, is a member of Operation Liberate based in Atlanta, a Board member of RenewPasco, and member of the Pasco County Commission on Human Trafficking.

RM: Bill, what can you tell us about Pasco County and their efforts to end human trafficking, at least in our area?

Bill Cronin (BC): We can create ordinances to make it more difficult for the activity to take place, so if you take the ground away from them, they have to go somewhere else. They’ll still do it somewhere else, but it might deter someone from getting the services, making it harder for everyone involved. Communities aren’t networked with other communities well enough to see the patterns or talk to each other about best practices either, so I teach other communities how to create ordinances such as nuisance abatement against ‘massage parlors’ and hotels to get them shut down. The more private or dark the room is, the more violence happens. Requiring ordinances prohibiting tinted windows and requiring a certain amount of windows helps some.

RM: What should residents of Tampa Bay know?

BC: The average age of most victims is 13, and the life expectancy while being trafficked is 7 years because of suicide, violence, drugs and disease. If a girl is trafficked at 12 years old, there’s a good chance she won’t live to be 20.

I implore you, the reader, to do something. Perhaps that’s simply to share this article in an online post or in a conversation. Perhaps you’re motivated to send money or supplies to an anti-trafficking organization. Perhaps you’ll volunteer your time or talents. Perhaps you’ll monitor your child’s social media presence more closely, or look for warning signs in their friend’s behavior. There are many things you can do, much of which costs nothing but a small amount of your time. Let’s link arms as a community and stand up for our kids. I’ll see you at Light Up The Night on January 14th (see ad for details)!