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Sunday, March 18, 2012

Southwest Florida Victims Help Battle Human Trafficking

When people think of a human-trafficking victim they often picture a child from a Third World country brought here against her will.

Many don't realize a victim also can be local, such as Fort Myers resident Julie Shematz. She was a 31-year-old student at Purdue University when she met her future trafficker 15 years ago. He was a Romeo who sweet-talked Shematz, she said, and promised to marry her. Then he convinced her to start stripping, which was the beginning of a downward spiral that eventually led to Shematz becoming a victim of sex and labor trafficking.

"I tried to commit suicide numerous times," she said. "You take drugs to numb yourself or try to prepare yourself to do what you have to do to make the money. It was this big, black hole that was just pulling me down and sucking the life out of me."
Southwest Florida law enforcement has not always understood the domestic aspect of human trafficking, but officials have been working the past few years to perfect their system for dealing with cases. They came together with local charities in a panel at Edison State College last month to highlight enforcement methods, educate the public and discuss roadblocks in prosecuting trafficking cases.

The U.S. Attorney's Office for the Middle District of Florida saw eight human-trafficking cases result in guilty verdicts during the last fiscal year, Chief Assistant U.S. Attorney Nicole Waid said.

The Collier County Sheriff's Office investigated nine human-trafficking cases in 2011, according to spokeswoman Krisi Lester. None of them resulted in charges filed.

There have not been many successful trafficking prosecutions in the county so far, and the lack of precedent makes it hard to get guilty verdicts, Lt. Brad Hamilton of the Lee County Sheriff's Office said at the panel. Victims also tend to be distrustful of law enforcement and unwilling to cooperate.

Shematz, whose nonprofit Beauty from Ashes is working to rehabilitate more than 10 local victims, said those who are trafficked don't always see themselves as victims. If the girl was seduced into the sex industry by a pimp, she often believes she loves her captor and refuses to testify against him.

The Lee County Sheriff's Office received a $450,000, three-year grant in 2005 to combat human trafficking, which at first the agency didn't know what to do with, Hamilton said. The county's human trafficking task force failed the first victim it was faced with, he said, noting he could not provide specific information about the case. One of the biggest problems was deputies obtained conflicting statements from victims' because they didn't know what questions to ask.

Last June, the sheriff's office started a Forensic Interview Team that works with the Children's Advocacy Center of Southwest Florida to make sure those interviewing victims are experts in social services.

New local efforts
Law enforcement recently formalized collaborations with nonprofits to provide services to trafficking victims, said Nola Theiss, executive director of Human Trafficking Awareness Partnerships. Her organization also partnered with Abuse Counseling & Treatment Inc. and the local affiliate of Catholic Charities six months ago.

ACT, a Fort Myers-based center for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, started providing shelter for human trafficking victims a few years ago, therapist Yaro Garcia said. ACT hotline operators also received training in dealing with human trafficking victims. The shelter will sometimes see new human trafficking victims as often as every 15 days.

"Four years ago you never heard the term (human trafficking) around the shelter," Garcia said.

Catholic Charities started offering services to human-trafficking victims about two years ago, Program Director Alex Olivares said during the panel. Since then the charity has worked with about 55 victims.

Eslande Dambrevil, a junior at FGCU who attended the human trafficking panel, said she was not aware it was a domestic issue until she started college and got involved with an anti-trafficking group.

What was her reaction when she realized people from Southwest Florida were being trafficked?

"I cried," Dambrevil said. "It's really emotional."

Source:  News Press 2/5/12

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