I-Team: Controversy over state Anti-Human Trafficking Money

Posted at 11:37 PM, Nov 04, 2016
and last updated 2016-11-04 23:37:18-04

Millions of dollars in state money used to fight human trafficking is sparking controversy in the Tampa Bay area.

While some are getting millions others are having to close their doors after helping local women for years.

"It's heart breaking, absolutely heart breaking." Niki Cross tells us as she walks by a now closed sanctuary house she developed.

Niki Cross with STAAR Ministries had to shut down the house which helped victims of human trafficking get back on their feet.

"We've had some that have gone on to have some really terrible things happen as a result of not having that sanctuary." she tells us.

Hard for her to see because Niki understands all too well what they're going through. When she was 15, she was kidnapped and locked in an attic for a year with 2 others, she was abused everyday.

"There is a bond between survivors, we understand each other in a way i don't think anybody else can."

She tells us her sanctuary house was the first of its kind in Pinellas county in 2014. Just last year she received the governor's survivor advocate of the year award. Which she accepted with a stunning reality. Here's what she told the audience:

".....but I stand here with a heavy heart today because we are so close to having to close the doors to Chrissie's House."

She says $350 thousand is needed. Niki says even though the government uses her services for victims and the governor said he would help, she never received a dime from the state.

"And I remember him saying to me that he would get some help." Niki says.

Governor Rick Scott did help several other organizations.  Since 2013,  he's been granting millions of dollars to groups helping victims of human trafficking. Earlier this year he granted $6.8 million to help 8 organizations.

One local organization, Bridging Freedom, is creating controversy in Tampa Bay. The state gave them a $1 million grant in 2015, and this year the state gave them a $1.2 million grant recurring every year until it's changed.

Bridging freedom is aiming to build a campus style setting on a hundred acres with housing and horses.

"I remember when the 1.2 million was awarded to a program that doesn't exist. I was horrified!" says Pasco County Judge Lynn Tepper.

Judge Tepper's frustration comes from the fact that Bridging Freedom was established in 2011 and as of today, no one has put a shovel in the dirt to build the campus.

"I have a problem with that amount of money! It seems exceedingly unwise when we have immediate services. It makes no sense to me."

"Where's the accountability?" says Kathy Arnold a human trafficking survivor and advocate.

"There should be an accountability of where that money goes.  We as taxpayers deserve it, we as survivors deserve it." she tells us.

We had an interview scheduled with Bridging Freedom's President Laura Hamilton. But then she canceled. When we tried to reschedule but she declined. But we did catch up with Governor Scott.

When asked how Bridging Freedom has received so much money without having built anything yet the

Governor explains, "Well what we have to do with all of these things everything goes through the budget. You have to hold them accountable, you have to make sure that dollars are spent well, the dollars are gonna be spent the way they said they're gonna be spent. And that's what my focus is."

Niki's hoping state grants are reviewed more carefully in the future.

"I don't question I absolutely know that there are some that not only should not be receiving money but should not be open." she says.

Governor Scott tells us the legislature picks who's getting the grants.  He admits he can veto it and signs off on it but he doesn't get involved with selecting which programs get the money.

Here are the most recent state grantsto organizations from April 2016:

  • Camillus House (Miami)  $500,000
  • Kristi House (Miami)  $200,000
  • Bridging Freedom (Tampa)  $1.2 million (recurring grant)
  •  Florida Dream Center (St. Petersburg)  $250,000
  • Selah Freedom (Sarasota)  $1 million
  • Devereux, Inc. (Orlando)  $359,000
  • Place of Hope (West Palm Beach)  $200,000
  • Voices for Freedom; Open Doors (Statewide)  $3.1 million