DJJ Secretary Wansley Walters announces expansion of Victim Identification Pilot Project
Tallahassee – Today, Florida’s Agency for Persons with Disabilities (APD), Department of Children and Families (DCF) and Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) held a joint press conference to raise awareness about human trafficking and educate the public about the state’s efforts to end the practice in Florida.
Human trafficking is a form of modern day slavery that affects more than 27 million people worldwide, including an estimated two million children who are trafficked for child labor and sexual exploitation. In the United States, the Polaris Project estimates approximately 100,000 kids are trapped in the commercial sex trade right now.
“Florida is a leading the way for the rest of the nation with its comprehensive, collaborative, cross-agency approach to protecting our state’s children from the emotional, physical and psychological harm human trafficking causes,” said DJJ Secretary Wansley Walters, chair of the Human Trafficking Workgroup of the Florida Children and Youth Cabinet.
For the second consecutive year, Gov. Rick Scott signed a proclamation designating January as Human Trafficking Awareness Month in Florida. This year, 13 local governments followed his lead by signing proclamations for their communities. To view the full list, click here.
“The Department of Children and Families has investigated more than 1,000 cases of alleged human trafficking involving children in this state,” said Secretary David Wilkins. “We are so proud to join in this effort to fight this terrible crime and rescue these young victims who are being sexually abused, exploited and traumatized. We can only hope that together, we can make a difference in their lives and stop other children from being victimized this way.”
During the press conference, DJJ Secretary Walters announced that DJJ is expanding its Victim Identification Pilot Project to Orange County. This unparalleled pilot trains staff at DJJ’s Juvenile Assessment Centers (JACs) to use a research-based, trauma-informed assessment tool to identify victims as soon as they enter the facility. The pilot began in Broward County last August, extended to Miami-Dade County in October, and will launch in Orange County at the end of this month. Once victims are identified, DJJ staff reports them to the Florida Abuse Hotline and an alert is entered into DJJ’s data system to track the child and ensure they receive appropriate services.
“Florida is the first state in the nation to attempt to identify victims immediately upon arrest,” DJJ Secretary Walters added. “We are particularly proud of this project because it not only saves children from the cruel individuals subjecting them to trafficking, but it also enables us to connect victims with state resources they need to recover from the trauma they experienced and move forward.”
Walters added, “The data we collect will help us better understand the scope of the problem, how many of these survivors we serve, and how we can best meet their needs.”
The pilot project complements two laws passed during the 2012 Legislative Session that seek to assist human trafficking victims. With the start of 2013, sexually exploited children received new hope as the state’s Safe Harbor Act became effective. The Safe Harbor Act helps ensure the safety of child victims who have been trafficked for sex by allowing them to get help from child welfare professionals instead of being placed in juvenile delinquency. This enables DCF, DJJ, law enforcement and local partners across the state to treat and help the victims of this abuse recover from the traumatic experiences they have faced so they can be successfully shepherded into adulthood.
“I am very proud to have sponsored and advocated for the Florida Safe Harbor Act. This important legislation allows law enforcement to recognize vulnerable individuals as victims instead of criminals, and gives us the ability to offer them refuge and support,” said Senator Anitere Flores. “I applaud Kristi House in Miami for their efforts in working with the Department of Children and Families to lead the way in identifying and treating victims of this horrendous crime.”
A separate law, House Bill 7049, went into effect last July and gives prosecutors the ability to better fight this terrible crime by imposing tougher penalties. Together, the laws have made Florida a national leader in fighting human trafficking and rescuing victims.
Human trafficking is the fastest growing criminal enterprise in the world today, and matches arms smuggling as the second largest international criminal industry.
“The situation in Florida is particularly dire because predators view our state as one of the most attractive destinations and transit points for their victims,” said Deborah Polston, Volunteer Advocate for Human Trafficking. “Thankfully, our state’s leaders and the Florida Legislature have recognized the need to further protect Florida’s youth. I am proud to be a part of the team dedicated to combating human trafficking in the state of Florida.”
The Agency for Persons with Disabilities is also incorporating numerous human trafficking indicators into its Zero Tolerance training program to help the professionals serving people with developmental disabilities identify and appropriately respond to the victims they may encounter. This is part of APD’s efforts to educate staff members and service providers throughout the state about human trafficking and its grave effect on U.S. citizens, foreign nationals, and the extremely vulnerable clients served by the agency.
“APD is committed to heightening awareness of all the potential threats that its clients face on a day-to-day basis,” said APD Director Barbara Palmer. “We understand that the issues surrounding human trafficking evolve continually, so the agency will be vigilant in its efforts to ensure the safety and well-being of Floridians with developmental disabilities.”
The Zero Tolerance curriculum guides APD’s providers in identifying cases of abuse and neglect, including sexual exploitation. In addition to requiring this training for APD employees and service providers, the agency has partnered with the Department of Children and Families’ Adult Protective Services Program that tracks and investigates reports of abuse and neglect. APD staff members throughout the state review these reports in an effort to strengthen abuse prevention strategies. The integration of human trafficking indicators will add this crucial factor to the report review process.
If you are aware of any child or adult in an unsafe situation, please call the Florida Abuse Hotline at 1-800-962-2873.
(Left to right: Deborah Polston, David Wilkins, Barbara Palmer, Wansley Walters and Zackary Gibson, director and chief child advocate of the Governor’s Office of Adoption and Child Protection.)