Grants help Pinellas’ fight against human trafficking

Adriana Rodriguez, PSTA’s RISK coordinator, is the creator of a Human Trafficking Awareness program known as “The Eyes of the City. The program recently received a federal grant to help continue training bus drivers on the signs of human trafficking and ways to help victims. The program uses the See Something, Say Something slogan designed to create awareness.

CLEARWATER — The Pinellas County Commission joined the rest of the nation recognizing Human Trafficking Prevention Month with a proclamation during its Jan. 28 meeting.

January was first declared as National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month in 2010. Officials say human trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery. It is a crime in which force, fraud or coercion is used to compel a person to perform labor, services or commercial sex. It affects all populations: adults, children, men, women, foreign nationals and U.S. citizens, and all economic classes.

Florida is third in the nation for human trafficking behind California and Texas. The Tampa Bay area, including Pinellas County, is one of the problem areas in the state.

The St. Petersburg Police Department received a $741,556 grant Jan. 22 from the Department of Justice to create a regional Tampa Bay Human Trafficking Task Force. The grant is for three years.

The grant covers the Middle District of Florida and includes federal, state and local agencies. The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office and Clearwater Police Department join St. Petersburg as local members of the task force.

The Tampa Bay Human Trafficking Task Force will focus on three areas, according to a press release from St. Petersburg PD.

1. Provide education and training to law enforcement and the public to build awareness.

2. Coordinate with support programs and resources to help victims.

3. Implement technology that makes it easier to collect and share data across jurisdictions. Provide law enforcement support and assist with investigation and prosecution.

“Human trafficking victims are real and too many of them are children whose innocence is forcibly taken from them with devastating and often lasting consequences, said Anthony Holloway, St. Petersburg Chief of Police. “Only through a direct and concerted effort will we be able to make a difference and eradicate human trafficking from our community.”

Two occurrences during last year’s Human Trafficking Prevention Month were prime examples of the local problem.

St. Petersburg police arrested five men and one woman Jan. 14, 2019 and another man was arrested the next day after an eight-month human trafficking investigation that led to two victims being found in a mobile home in St. Petersburg.

One of the two victims was a 15-year-old boy from Marion County who was “lured with the promise of a better life,” St. Petersburg police said after the arrest. “Instead he was moved into a filthy trailer and lived with four men.”

On Jan. 25, 2019, a St. Petersburg woman was sentenced to life in prison for human trafficking of a child.

The 14-year-old victim told Pinellas County Sheriff’s detectives she ran away from home on Oct. 2, 2016, and needed a place to stay. She was introduced to Katilia Biankeasa Seymour who rented a motel room for the girl. In return, the victim agreed to work for Seymour as a prostitute. Seymour was arrested Oct. 28, 2016.

PSTA joins the fight

Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority received a $43,630 grant Jan. 29 from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Transit Authority. The money will help with the agency’s training of its bus drivers to better recognize signs of passengers being trafficked and ways to assist them.

“This money will help spread awareness and further our training with our drivers,” said Adriana Rodriguez, RISK coordinator and creator of PSTA’s Human Trafficking Awareness program known as “The Eyes of the City.”

Rodriguez presented information about the program during a Jan. 29 board meeting.

In partnership with the Department of Transportation, Truckers Against Human Trafficking and the Department of Homeland Security, PSTA’s program consists of training sessions on topics, such as looking for signs of a person being disoriented or confused, or showing signs of mental or physical abuse.

Thus far 117 bus drivers have been trained and the goal is to train them all. Bus drivers meet two to three times a month to receive an updated overview of information.

Rodriguez said information from the Polaris Project shows that about half of human traffickers use public transportation to move their victims.

The Polaris Project operates the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline. Since December 2007, it has had 246,267 contacts with 56,504 cases of human trafficking reported. Contacts from Florida totaled 13,817 with 4,203 cases. The majority of cases are sex trafficking with labor trafficking coming in at a distant second.

People needing immediate help can call the hotline 24/7 at 1-800-373-7888, or text “BEFREE” or “HELP” to 233733. Visit humantraffickinghonline.org to chat with an advocate. You can also email help@humantraffickinghotline.org, but email response may be delayed.

County commission wants to help

During the Jan. 28 meeting, County Commissioner Janet Long suggested that the county form a Human Trafficking Commission as neighboring Hillsborough and Pasco counties have done. She said it was especially important due to the Super Bowl being held in Tampa next year.

Commission Chair Pat Gerard pointed out that Pinellas has had a task force working on the problem for many years with a new one now based out of St. Petersburg. She said St. Petersburg College does a lot of training on human trafficking.

“I think anything we can do to highlight this most horrific crime that exists today (should be done),” said Commissioner Charlie Justice.

Commissioner Dave Eggers agreed and asked how the county could get involved to bring awareness to the seriousness of the problem.

Commissioner Karen Seel suggested looking at what others are doing and asking the marketing and communications department to come up with a plan. Commissioner Kathleen Peters suggested getting in touch with regional task force for recommendations.

The county passed an ordinance in 2016 that mirrors a state law enacted in 2015 that requires certain businesses and locations to display public awareness signs to inform the public about trafficking and resources for assistance.

In Pinellas, these signs must be posted at adult entertainment establishments, businesses or establishments that offer massage or bodywork services and businesses or establishments that operate as a specialty salon performing nail services.

For more information, visit www.pinellascounty.org/CONSUMER/human_trafficking.htm.

Suzette Porter is TBN’s Pinellas County editor. She can be reached at sporter@tbnweekly.com.