TAMPA, Fla. — An undercover operation regarding prostitution led to the arrest of eight people in Hillsborough County Wednesday.
Deputies said Timothy McCausland, a city attorney for Lakeland, was among those arrested for a Hillsborough County ordinance violation: public solicitation event.
Investigators said detectives used fake ads posted on an adult escort website to lure people to a hotel. There, they met an undercover detective.
Others arrested in the sting were charged with offering to commit prostitution, soliciting another to commit prostitution and unlicensed massage practice.
“Operations like this help us to not only seek out possible victims of human trafficking, but also find and take criminals off the streets who are hiding in plain sight,” Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister said in a statement.
No arrests were made for human trafficking in this operation.
The issue is one law enforcement and law makers are working to prevent, though.
“One of our favorite law enforcement agents always says it’s not the oldest profession but rather the oldest story of abuse,” said Elizabeth Melendez Fisher Good.
She is the co-founder and CEO of Selah Freedom and the Selah Way Foundation. The organization works to fight and prevent human trafficking, and provide wrap around services to survivors.
“Florida’s the number three state and Tampa region typically number 2 in the state of Florida. And fun fact everybody might not know this. Tampa has more strip clubs than Vegas,” Melendez Fisher Good said.
According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, in Florida there were 767 human trafficking cases reported to the hotline in 2018, 622 in 2017 and 562 in 2016.
In September, Florida congressmen, Rep. Vern Buchanan and Rep. Alcee Hasting, introduced a bill to combat human trafficking. It would be called the ‘Human Trafficking and Exploitation Prevention Training Act.’ If passed, the bill would create a grant program to train students, teachers and staff on the warning signs. The bill calls for $75 million in funding over a 5 year period.
“Human trafficking is a vile and monstrous crime against women and children,” Buchanan said in a statement after the bill was introduced. “Educating students and teachers about the warning signs is critical to addressing the problem. This is especially important in hot spots for human trafficking like Florida. I look forward to working with Congressman Hasting and organizations like the Selah Way Foundation to end this modern day slavery.”
“Not only will this bill help children understand but it educates educators. Often parents and teachers don’t know what they’re looking at they’ll just say 'oh this child is acting out’ and ‘they’re just promiscuous' but it helps them understand there’s a root,” said Melendez Fisher Good.
She said Florida is leading the way legislatively.
In September, the Florida State Board of Education approved a new rule that requires education in child trafficking prevention for students grades K-12. The agency said Florida will be the first state in the country “to address the need for instruction in child trafficking prevention.” The rule requires schools to plan and document the delivery of the instruction. They must submit an implementation plan by December 1st and an annual report each yet.
“The wording sex trafficking sounds so scary but if you break it down what they did with this bill it is actually such protection for our children. 3:42 starting k through 12 they’re saying our schools have to be a sex trafficking free zone,” said Melendez Fisher Good.
Here are the statements local school districts sent to ABC Action News on their curriculum:
Pasco County schools:
The current curriculum that was put in place in the 2017-2018 school year is delivered in a 6th grade health course and in high school HOPE courses. Our health curriculum staff and school counselor leaders are working on how to deliver instruction to the lower grade levels. The school counselors already work with the younger students to educate them on human trafficking, and we think what they’re currently doing will meet the requirements of the new rule. We will have a plan in place to submit to the state by the December 1, 2019, deadline.
Sarasota County schools:
This is a new rule passed last week. The school district has until December 1 to provide an outline of the curriculum we will employ to include this as part of our K-12 curriculum. As you can imagine, this is a difficult topic and we have to be very thoughtful of our approach to curriculum, especially at the elementary school level. Sarasota County Schools will integrate this topic into instruction as directed by the state.
Pinellas County schools:
Pinellas County Schools is gathering resources and best practices, as well as, awaiting technical assistance from the Florida Department of Education. We will fully comply with the state board rule by their deadline of December 1.
Polk County schools:
Human trafficking is a terrible reality that preys upon vulnerable members of society, including children. Knowledge can help our youth recognize this threat and protect themselves. We are developing a plan on how to instruct our students on child trafficking prevention. We will present this important information in a useful and age-appropriate manner to our students.
Hillsborough County schools:
We do have some programs already in our schools in regard to human trafficking. In our HOPE class, students are taught about, What is human trafficking, recognizing the signs and how to report it. Students in 9th grade take HOPE class but students in 10-12th can also take it, if they don't take it in 9th. Our teachers were trained during a professional development day on August 5 about the definition, signs and how to report it as well. We our course don't know what changes, if any, new laws could bring about depending on what the bills finally look like if they are passed.
“I wish somebody would have brought that awareness into the schools when I was a child because I didn’t have that valuable piece of information,” said Angelea Valenti.
Valenti never imagined she would have a future. But now she stands as a survivor.
She said she was sexually abused starting at age 3, and at age 12, she ran away.
“I met the man who would become my trafficker at the age of 13 and he forced me to dance in strip clubs and then also forced me to exchange sexual favors,” said Valenti.
After living that life for five to seven years, she said she found herself in a courtroom and was rescued, thanks to Selah Freedom.
Now, Valenti said she has a relationship with her children, graduated college with honors and works to help other survivors as part of Selah Freedom’s staff.
“This organization changes lives and they changed mine,” she said.