TAMPA, Fla. — The U.S. Institute Against Human Trafficking (USIAHT) is making an urgent plea for the state’s help to care for an oftentimes forgotten population: boy victims of sex trafficking.
The nonprofit runs the only safe house in the country dedicated to male trafficking victims under the age of 18.
The ABC Action News I-Team found that as the state’s own count of boys being sold for sex continues to grow, the safe houses’ five beds are rarely all filled.
“The state of Florida told us, we want and need a boys safe home. And now, a couple of years later, they act like we don’t exist," USIAHT CEO Kevin Malone said. "The boys need the help. They're out there."
Malone told the I-Team a lack of state referrals from the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) to fill beds over the last five years, threatens to shutter the state’s only safe home for boy trafficking victims. The program also provides therapy and life skills.
Data from DCF shows, of the 1,900 reports of alleged human trafficking its abuse hotline received last year, 308 were for boy victims. This marks a 2% increase for male victim intakes compared to the year before, something the DCF attributed to “more extensive trainings on male victimization conducted by the Department and its community partners.”
The USIAHT said beyond DCF, it has spoken with Attorney General Ashley Moody and Governor Ron DeSantis' office.
In December 2020, Malone wrote a letter to Governor DeSantis that said, in part, "The current model of placing victims in safe home beds is a failure by your administration and threatens to re-victimize hundreds of trafficking victims across Florida."
Malone told the I-Team he worries about where the boys are ending up.
"I think they go to juvenile justice facilities, they maybe go to group homes, I don’t know really where they’re going," Malone said.
In Florida, children have the power to say whether they want to go or stay at a safe house.
In an email, DCF said some human trafficking survivors "may be more appropriately served in their own homes with community-based wrap-around services and others may need a higher level of care such as a residential substance abuse or mental health treatment center."
DCF tells the I-Team there have been 156 verified male minor sex trafficking victims since 2017.
It's a number just about any advocate, like Nilda Otero, will tell you, is an under-count.
"They're not forthcoming," Otero said of boys. "They were raised to state, ‘I am a man. I cannot show feelings. I cannot cry. I am not a coward.' So when it comes to them speaking about them being victimized, they’ve always been told, a man can never be raped. A boy can never be victimized. So they have that embedded into their mindset that they’re not able to speak up and scream, ‘I am being hurt, I am being victimized, help me.' So the self-disclosure is unfortunately unreported. Or even unidentified,” she said.
Otero, a survivor mentor, works with boy sex trafficking victims, including those living in the USIAHT's safe house.
“I went through my own victimization at a young age and that’s something that I really didn’t talk about to anybody," Otero said. “So with me just saying to them, ‘I understand where you’re coming from because this has happened’, right there breaks that wall between us.”
Both Malone and Otero said many of the boys they're seeing are part of the LGBTQ community, including transgender individuals.
“Because they’re not receiving the support at home, they’re seeking it elsewhere," Otero said. "That’s what’s going to lead them into trafficking.”
Otero described social media and video games as ways traffickers lure boys into a reality darker that the game on their screen.
“Traffickers are using the video game systems to talk to boys to be like, 'Hey, I want to be your friend, let’s meet up," Otero said.
Last year, the I-Team uncovered new details in a human trafficking case out of St. Petersburg involving two teen boys.
In a news conference at the time, Attorney General Ashley Moody said, "The teenage victim, in this case, was lured away from his family, with promises of a better life. Instead, he was moved into a filthy trailer and used as a sex slave for nearly a year."
In another case, Alysia "Coco" Algere is serving a 15-year prison sentence for human trafficking after her arrest in 2013.
According to Algere's plea agreement, the investigation revealed her victims included two teen boys, 15 and 16-years-old. Court documents say she met them at a DMV office in Tampa, recruited the teens and advertised them for sex under the "trans-sexual" section of the now-defunct website Backpage.
One of the teens said they gave her half of the money they earned and he would do up to 30 "dates" a day, seven days a week for two months.
Another victim listed in court documents told law enforcement yet another boy was being trafficked, who is transgender, and was on a missing person flyer at the time.
As the USIAHT pushes for help in identifying victims and connecting them with availability support, Otero has a message for those who may feel alone.
“It’s okay to speak up. Because there are people here that are here for you and are here to listen and here to help you," Otero said. “A lot of kids are going unseen. And we need to bring them to the light.”
If you believe you are a victim of Human Trafficking or suspect an adult is a victim of human trafficking, please visit the National Human Trafficking Hotline, or call them at 1-888-373-7888. If you suspect a child is a victim, please call the Florida Abuse Hotline at 1-800-96-ABUSE.
If you have a story you'd like the I-Team to investigate, email firstname.lastname@example.org