On the front line of the human trafficking fight

Posted at 5:42 PM, Jan 11, 2016
and last updated 2016-01-11 17:45:02-05

Prosecutors, police and community advocates are marking human trafficking awareness month and talking about progress in the fight, but also the work left to be done.

"I think we still have a long way to go, but I'd say progressing from a perspective of just awareness," said Michelle Walker, executive director of Miracles Outreach.

Advocates say one huge success in just the past year has been the implementation of the "Safe Harbor Act".  It allows juvenile victims of sex trafficking to be pushed into safe houses instead of jail. The biggest hurdle often comes in getting victims to make what seems like a simple realization.

"They often don't recognizing they're a victim or think that it's their fault. So, I think it's important that if that's the case, they know there are agencies that are out here. We're willing to help, and if we don't have the solution, we'll connect them to the person that does," said Walker.

Working with human trafficking victims is a personal cause for Crystal Vallery, who found herself caught in the sex trade at just 14 years old.

"Back when MySpace first opened up, I put a status that my dad was in the hospital, and I didn't have a way to go get him. Somebody befriended me and ended up saying, 'Hey, I could take you there.' That ended up turning out really bad, really quick," said Vallery.

While there are a growing number of safe houses and services to help, especially for child trafficking victims, experts say community-based services as a whole are still lacking, especially for adults.

The goal is always keeping a victim stable long-term with a job, housing, mental health and substance abuse treatment. Right now, prosecutors estimate that for every 100 victims, only one or two remain stable by the time their cases head to trial.

Vallery was bounced around between group homes before finally getting help at Miracles Outreach.

"I think funding is a huge issue. Nobody can really provide resources, because not a lot of stuff is free. Nobody can provide counseling for free. Some people do, but there's a lot more to meet the need, and there's just not enough people to give," said Vallery.

Police and prosecutors say partnerships with local government are also critical. Right now, a proposal under consideration in Pasco County would require all employees at sexually-oriented businesses undergo training every year on human trafficking.

Experts say continuing those efforts along with education and awareness is key as the fight against the trade continues.