In cities and towns across the country, a form of modern-day slavery takes place in the shadows, or often in plain sight: human trafficking.
West Volusia — and Florida as a whole — is no exception.
A coalition of faith groups from around the area is trying to shed light on this difficult subject. The HOPE Team — Helpers of People Enslaved — invites the community to its annual Human Trafficking Awareness Night, set for 6:30 p.m. Thursday, May 17, at Trinity United Methodist Church, 306 W. Wisconsin Ave.
Jan Edwards, founder of Paving the Way, a nonprofit group that works against trafficking, will speak at the free event.
Edwards took an interest in the issue after a trip to Ethiopia, a significant source country of trafficked women, children and men. One thing she saw while on the road during her trip stuck with her.
“I remember seeing an older man and a couple of younger women, and it just didn’t feel right,” she recalled.
She mentioned what she saw to the host she was staying with, who told her it was likely an instance of human trafficking.
“I knew in that moment that I wanted to do something,” she said.
When Edwards returned home to Orlando, she started doing research about trafficking in Central Florida.
“I was like, wait a minute, we’re supposed to be the happiest place on Earth,” she said. “What do you mean we’re the third in human trafficking?”
As a state, Florida ranks third in the nation in the number of calls to the National Human Trafficking Hotline.
Edwards went on a quest, speaking with law enforcement and survivors of human trafficking, and learned that awareness of the practice was severely lacking.
But she was still unsure what to do. As she was driving one day, Edwards said she had a private conversation with God, which led her to her answer.
“I was driving down Curry Ford Road, and I heard the word ‘documentary,’” she said.
She got home, and in what she called a “divine download,” wrote her film, TRAPPED: In the Trade, in two days.
It was released in spring 2016, and was shown at film festivals around the country.
The film, which tells the story of a teenager being trafficked by another teenager, is based on actual events, and will be shown at the awareness-night event May 17.
“It takes a cut at this dark world from a place that nobody wants to talk about, which is children recruiting other children,” Edwards said.
Ultimately, Edwards said, she wants to teach kids to not only protect themselves, but to look for signs of trafficking affecting their friends and classmates — and most importantly, to intervene.
“For parents, I really just want to encourage parents to be connected to your kids,” Edwards said. “It’s super easy to go out to dinner and hand your kids an iPhone or an iPad and just not engage with dialogue with them.”
Having an open and honest line of communication with a child could make the child more likely to tell a parent what’s going on in his or her life.
“If parents make the time to be with their kids, their kids can actually have the time to share and vent with their parents, and now there’s a connection that’s not there before. It creates this authentic dialogue that’s missing between our parents and our children,” Edwards said.
She also encourages parents to keep close tabs on their kids’ social-media activity — though she warns against clandestinely putting tracking apps on their phones or other devices.
“You have to be straight up with them,” Edwards said. “You can’t download a tracking app on their phone or their laptop because the moment they discover it, you’ve broken that trust.”
For more information, she encourages people to visit Paving the Way’s website at www.pavingtheway.org, and to follow the group on Facebook.
In 2017, 604 cases of human trafficking in Florida were reported to the National Human Trafficking Hotline. Trafficking can take several different forms, including sex trafficking and forced labor.
Of the 604 cases reported, 402 involved sex trafficking, and 137 involved forced labor, with the remainder a combination of both, or undetermined. The lion’s share of victims, 504, were female, but 95 cases involving men were also reported.
The Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) received 1,892 calls alleging human trafficking from July 1, 2016, to June 30, 2017, according to an annual report released in October 2017. Closer to home, so far this year, the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office has worked about 15 human trafficking-related tips/investigations.
“Of those 15, most came to us through DCF. Seven turned out to have actually occurred in other jurisdictions and were forwarded to the appropriate agencies,” Sheriff’s Office spokesman Andrew Gant wrote in an email. “Seven more have been closed out with no victim disclosure of human trafficking. One case, generated by us through an initial investigation, is still open and active and involves a habitual runaway.”
Members of several West Volusia churches, including Trinity United Methodist Church in DeLand, St. Ann’s Catholic Church in DeBary and Orange City United Methodist Church, are involved with the HOPE Team. The group seeks to keep people from becoming victims through providing awareness and education, and it seeks to raise money to help organizations that provide housing and care to victims of trafficking.
Team member Lana Saxon said the group held its annual Freedom Fund Banquet in April, which raised more than $20,000 through ticket sales, sponsorships and auctions.
The team hopes to solicit proposals from agencies who are in a position to build safe houses for trafficking victims, and to ultimately give the money toward building such a facility.