Advocates hope to rescue underage Super Bowl sex slaves
They're not here for the game, though. They will spend several days fanning out through the city to rescue underage girls who have been trafficked to South Florida as sex workers.
``The Super Bowl is obviously a really big deal for prostitution,'' Sandy Skelaney, a program manager at Kristi House, a program for sexually abused children, told the group.
``We have a bunch of girls being brought down by pimps.''
Just as police, hoteliers, restaurateurs and retailers have prepared for the big game, so too have children's advocates. For weeks, volunteers have printed fliers, prepared scripts and organized outreach teams in an effort to identify -- and, with luck, rescue -- girls who are being forced into prostitution.
Last year, when the Super Bowl was held in Tampa, the state Department of Children & Families took in 24 children who were brought to the city to serve as sex workers, said Regina Bernadin, DCF's statewide human-trafficking coordinator.
``Miami is known as a destination city for human trafficking, and sporting events are generally recognized by the experts as magnets for prostitution,'' said Trudy Novicki, who heads Kristi House.
Under normal circumstances, Florida -- and Miami in particular -- draws more than its share of underaged sex workers, lured by large numbers of transient men, the glitz of South Beach and a steady stream of conventions, authorities say.
The Super Bowl is expected to generate as much traffic for prostitutes as it does for bartenders and bookies.
And though the girls on South Beach and in Downtown Miami may seem to be there voluntarily, authorities say they almost certainly are former runaways or foster kids who fell prey to human trafficking. Some are barely out of puberty.
Ernie Allen, who heads the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, said girls typically enter prostitution at age 11 or 12.
``This is truly an example of supply and demand,'' Allen said. ``They use these kids as commodities for sale or trade, and go to where demand is the greatest, and where they can make the most money. That's why they follow events like the Super Bowl.''
Allen called child prostitutes ``21st-century slaves.''
Throughout the year, Miami-Dade police hold between 15 and 20 operations targeting underage prostitution. For major events, such as the Super Bowl, the department works with the FBI's Innocence Lost Task Force.
``At large events such as this, we increase our presence . . . with the ultimate goal being that no children are sexually exploited,'' Maj. Raul Ubieta, who works with the department's Strategic and Specialized Investigations Bureau, said through a spokesman.
At Kristi House Wednesday night, where the volunteers gathered, fliers sat on a desk with pictures of four missing girls, ages 14 to 17.
``What we're trying to do tonight is plant a seed of hope for someone,'' said Brad Dennis, a director with the Klaas Kids Foundation.
``Last year during the Tampa Super Bowl, the largest number of tips came in from hotel owners,'' he said.
The outreach workers are organized into eight teams, divvying up the Spanish-speakers and trying to have one man each. In teams of two, three or four, the volunteers -- who came from as far as New York City and Alabama -- spread out across Miami-Dade -- from South Beach to Hialeah to Downtown Miami.
The goal is to look for missing girls and underaged sex workers. When they find a promising candidate, they hand out a card with a rescue hotline number on it.
The volunteers have a script: ``I'm a volunteer that works with kids who are in the life. I know you may not have a lot of time, but this is our card in case you or someone you know needs help. It has a hotline number discreetly listed. This is so no one knows. Is there anything you need tonight?''
And general rules: Try not to approach big groups of girls. Don't walk up to anyone near a pimp.
Outreach workers carry a small, glossy pamphlet filled with the pictures of missing teenagers.
They are black, white and Hispanic, blonde, auburn and braided. The booklet includes a short introduction from the family of Amber Dubois, a 15-year-old Escondido, Calif. girl who vanished on Feb. 13, 2009, a short distance from her high school: ``I am a football fan, but this Super Bowl, the champions will not be the Colts or the Saints for me. It will be your search team. For every girl you find and rescue, it will be a game-winning touchdown all over again.''
The message was written by 70-year-old Sheila Welch, Amber's grandmother.
``To think that something that is supposed to be all-American, the sport of our country, actually has an underground of sex trafficking is horrible,'' Welch told The Miami Herald.
The girls pictured in the handbook ``all look like babies,'' Welch said. ``But they are not babies anymore. They lost their childhood.''
For the volunteers, reaching their targets is not an easy job. Novicki calls them ``a tough crowd.''
Said volunteer Eddy Ameen, the executive director of StandUp For Kids -- Miami: ``We are not seen as saviors.''
The girls the group encounters are streetwise, distrustful, hardened and fearful of strangers -- who can get them beaten if the girl's pimp feels threatened.
Some girls view their pimps as family: someone who fed them, clothed them, loved them when no one else would.
``Nobody is saying, `Thank goodness you came and saved me,' '' Novicki said. But on a good day, a girl may take the group's card and hang onto it. Some time later, she said -- maybe after a beating or a night of particularly rough sex -- a girl may find the card and use it.
BILLIONS IN REVENUE
The National Center estimates there are between 100,000 and 150,000 underaged sex workers who generate billions of dollars in revenue for their pimps. The girls can travel around the country in ``circuits.''
In May, DCF began identifying through the agency's hotline children who fell victim to human trafficking. To date, they have recovered almost 85 children -- the largest number, 17, last month, said DCF spokesman Joe Follick.
Shared Hope International, a research and rescue group, reported in May 2009 that during a five-year period of servitude, an underaged prostitute might be ``raped'' by 6,000 men -- assuming a five-night-a-week schedule.
And if the everyday job description of a child prostitute is bad enough, times of ``peak'' demand, such as a sporting event, are particularly disturbing.
``Children exploited through prostitution typically are given a quota by their trafficker/pimp of 10-15 buyers per night,'' the Shared Hope report says, adding, ``though some service providers report girls having been sold to as many as 45 buyers in a night at peak demand times, such as a sporting event or convention.''
For Carrie McGonigle, Amber Dubois' mother, finding her daughter as a sex worker would be a blessing, because all the other possibilities are arguably worse. ``It would be good news,'' McGonigle said. ``I've already dealt with what that would mean if we find her.''
Miami Herald staff writer Jared Goyette contributed to this report.