FORT MYERS, Fla. — Human trafficking in Florida is a growing problem. The state ranks third in the nation for most reported potential cases. Several task forces have formed in anticipation of the influx of people into Miami for Super Bowl 54. Advocates and law enforcement are on high alert for human trafficking victims being funneled into Southwest Florida.
Torre Lynn from Into the Jordan (http://intothejordan.org/) believes, "There will be a lot of men that are partying, that indulge, that don't believe they are predators. They minimize it. And they think that it's just entertainment. It's just relaxation. It's just part of the party." She adds, "I know there’s a lot of men that don’t consider themselves predators. There are a lot of women out there that don’t consider themselves as being trafficked. But that’s not true." Lynn's truth comes from her own experience in Pinellas County. She remembers, "The first time I was trafficked, I was 13 years old. And, I was trafficked by my family. Second time I was trafficked, was when I was 18 years old. And it was also my family, through coercion."
Ramona Miller (http://www.avitwf.com/) has been an advocate for human trafficking victims since before it became a buzz term, now often used by media outlets. FOX 4 rode along with her one night, through what she calls, the trenches. She says, "Human trafficking exists. It has always existed. And it’s not going to stop until we look at it for what it is. We have to be able to say, 'You know what? We live in a beautiful place that has some bad things going on.' "
There's a section of US 41 just south of Fort Myers' historic district, that is referred to as "The Stroll." Miller says it's because (mostly) women walk up and down the street in hopes of picking up a John. Miller says, "We have the WWE that will be happening in Tampa. Then, we also have the Super Bowl that will be occurring in Miami. And, with those two things occurring and we're right here in the middle, it puts us strategically in a place to where we will be seeing new faces." She admits it can be dangerous doing what she does. The former Army veteran says, "I know what to do, and because I’m not trying to be law enforcement. I respect people. People respect me. I wait for the girls to say they’re ready and that’s how we have successes.
She says there are critics who don't agree with her methods of helping sex trafficking victims. She says, "When I first started with human trafficking, it was like, 'Why are you doing this? Why are you helping? They want to be out there!' Who wants to live the life these people live? They don’t understand the brutality. Then I started out passing out Narcan." She adds, "I talk to the faith based community who say, 'You are enabling." I never saw a dead person repent. So, my goal is not to be a politician. My goal is not to be a bishop or pope. My goal is to save a life while opportunity allows me to. Period."
While riding along with Miller, FOX 4 anchor Jane Monreal, was introduced to a "regular" along "The Stroll." The self-professed sex worker was trafficked but says she became free from her traffickers when she got arrested. She remembers, "I've been in the dope game since I was 11 years old, when I was first got introduced to drugs. When I first got trafficked, I was like 25. It was right after my father killed himself." She says her supposed friends abandoned her. She says, "So somebody tripped my weakness and said, 'Come here. I'll help you. I'll put a roof over your head. I'll make sure there's food in your stomach. Made sure I got high to the point I depended on them.' "
Miller says traffickers recognize and take advantage of people who have a void to fill, are not validated at home or, have no family. She notes that often times, human trafficking victims are addicted to drugs.
Lynn says she was a substance abuser for a reason. She says, "I didn't know any other way to deal with the trauma that I had been through. That was the only way I knew to not feel." She says it stems from the pain of her younger self. She says, "What did I ever do to you, that you don't love me? What did I do to you, that you don't like me? What did I do to you, that you're so mean to me? That little girl, because that's where it all starts."
Lynn was rescued in 2014 after a friend referred her to Into the Jordan. She says, "I gained enough knowledge to know that some thing better was within reach." Today, Lynn works two jobs. She adds, "I’m part of the ministry team. I get to help other women. I love both of the jobs that I do. I have a great relationship with my daughter and my granddaughter. I’m very happy with my life."
Other resources: If you or someone you know, is a victim of human trafficking and in immediate danger, call 911.The National Human Trafficking Hotline number is (888) 373-7888.Miller also works closely with Catholic Charities for temporary housing for human trafficking victims. The local hotline is (239) 738-8722.