PALMETTO, Fla. — A screening tool the state uses to help identify child victims of human trafficking is not very reliable, a new report shows, and "may not successfully identify" all kids.
Despite years of recommendations, the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) has made no changes to the interview guide since it was first implemented seven years ago.
I-TEAM | Human trafficking coverage
Sex trafficking survivor Holly Harris spoke with the ABC Action News I-Team about the importance of identifying vulnerable kids to get them the help they need.
“I grew up in Wisconsin, and I had a great family. We went to church, I was the captain of the golf team in high school, and nothing traumatic ever happened to me growing up, but there was always the feeling of — I didn’t fit in. Like I didn’t belong with the people that I was around, including my family. So I veered off, and I started rebelling," Harris said.
She then met a man on a dating app.
"I was 16, he was 36, and he was fresh out of prison, and he told me that he could help me make a lot of money," she said. "So I left my hometown one night and never came back. I went to Madison, and he became my trafficker, and I was in this house with him for months without leaving at a time."
DCF tries to identify child victims of sex trafficking, like Harris, to connect them with help. To do that, they use a screening tool, an interview guide with 50 questions about work, relationships, tattoos/branding, history of running away, and any sexual contact.
State law requires the human trafficking tool be validated, if possible.
The Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability (OPPAGA), in its 2016 Annual Study on Commercial Exploitation of Children, stated the importance of the screening tool measuring what it is intended to measure.
But in its new annual report, released in July, the government accountability office said DCF had not made any changes to the screening tool, it was unable to validate the screening tool, and it may not successfully identify all youth victims of sex trafficking.
"Sometimes, this may be someone’s only chance for identification. It’s really important that we get this right if this is the first time they’ve been screened or potentially the only time they’ve been screened for this," said Dr. Lisa Magruder with the Florida Institute for Child Welfare.
Magruder led the research on the Human Trafficking Screening Tool's effectiveness. She said the stakes are high.
"I mean, from the research, we know there’s absolutely dire consequences for those that are victimized by human trafficking. And we want to make sure that they are connected to services and that they are receiving the help that they need," Magruder said.
She said identification is also important to collect data on what's happening in Florida to get ahead of the problem.
“While screening is incredibly important, I think the ultimate goal is to really get ahead of what’s happening in our state so that we can come back on the prevention side of things and try to prevent this from happening in the first place," Magruder said.
After a drop in reporting during the height of the pandemic last year, the Florida Abuse Hotline received 2,289 tips alleging human trafficking of children. Nearly 93% of those tips were for sex trafficking, mostly girls and an increasing number of boys, with the highest number of reports coming from DCF's central region. This includes Citrus, Hernando and Polk counties.
In its report, DCF attributed the increase to a delay in reporting during the pandemic, a new state law requiring hotel and motel employees to complete annual training on human trafficking awareness, and online training becoming available to more people across the state.
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“Maybe at some point we will be able to say, 'Yes, this is where we need it to be. It’s measuring what we said it’s supposed to measure, and it looks like folks are using this pretty consistently, and we think that this is a really good indicator of whether a youth winds up ultimately being verified or not as a victim of human trafficking," said Magruder.
She continued, “I mean, it’s kids' lives," Harris said. “If there isn’t preventative measures and people that are taking the time to research and care and put these kinds of things together, then it’s like, you can talk about it, but if there’s not an effort toward preventing it or towards change, then why are you doing it?”
The I-Team first contacted DCF more than a month ago to talk about the Human Trafficking Screening Tool and the finding that it may not successfully identify all kids. The I-Team asked if DCF is following all of the recommendations to improve the tool, including converting the interview guide to an electronic format, and why it has not made any changes to it in more than five years.
Despite repeated requests to the state agency with a responsibility to protect children in its care, the I-Team has yet to receive any answers.
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.