Temple Terrace becomes latest local government to declare itself human TraffickingFree Zone

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TEMPLE TERRACE — With a stroke of the mayor’s pen, Temple Terrace became the most recent government in the Tampa Bay area to declare itself a human TraffickingFree Zone.

It’s part of a concentrated effort by an organization whose goal is to put so much pressure on the buyers in the sex trade that it becomes too much of a “high-risk, low-reward’’ endeavor, causing demand to drop. Lower demand would mean fewer vulnerable girls and boys, women and men being forced into sex slavery, said Stephanie Costolo, Florida Regional Manager for the TraffickingFree Zone program, an effort by the U.S. Institute Against Human Trafficking.

The cities of St. Petersburg, Clearwater, New Port Richey and Dade City have signed on to the effort, as has Pasco County. Costolo said she’s working now to get Hillsborough County government on board and plans to approach the City of Tampa.

After the proclamation issued last week by Temple Terrace Mayor Mel Jurado, the organization trained all city employees in how to identify people who are being victimized as sex or labor slaves and how to report it. Along with that, the city has in place a zero-tolerance policy covering its employees: “You get busted buying sex on or off hours, you don’t have a job here,’’ as Costolo explained it.

“Temple Terrace is committed to going beyond this simple proclamation,’’ Jurado said. “It doesn’t just want to be a city or community that has ‘yaption’ around this topic. We are committed to taking action.’’

Aside from encouraging more police sting arrests of buyers, the institute against human trafficking wants to get churches and schools to focus on the message and for businesses to sign TraffickingFree Zone proclamations in order to blanket entire communities with the message.

“The idea is that if you’re a sex buyer in a TraffickingFree Zone community, it starts to feel very uncomfortable. And it starts to feel like a high-risk, low-reward activity, whereas it wasn’t there before,’’ she said.

The U.S. Institute Against Human Trafficking, headquartered in Tampa, was founded about three years ago as a Christian nonprofit by Kevin Malone, former general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, and Geoff Rogers, a former vice president at IBM, who serves as the CEO of the institute.

In addition to its TraffickingFree Zones campaign, the institute runs a safe home in Central Florida for teenaged boys who were sex trade victims, with plans to build another, according to Desiree Istrati, a spokeswoman for the institute.

Costolo, addressing the Temple Terrace mayor and council last week, said the Switzerland-based International Labour Organization estimated there are 4.8 million sex slave victims globally. She said Florida consistently ranks third nationally in the number of calls made to the National Human Trafficking Hotline.

“When we launched the program, we counted, over a two-month period, over 32,000 ads placed online for sex just in Tampa Bay; just over two months, just from two web sites,’’ she said. “And there are hundreds of web sites at any given time,’’ generating 20 to 100 responses in just a few days.

Temple Terrace city staffers and others going through the institute’s training learn how to spot potential trafficking victims, whether they are forced into slave labor or used as sex slaves.

Such signs include a younger or more submissive person accompanied by a more dominant person, and the dominant person speaks on behalf of the submissive person and may carry that person’s money and identification.

“That’s one of the easiest things visually to observe,’’ Costolo.

While some sex trafficking victims are runaway teens or homeless people coerced into the sex trade by intimidation or drug addiction, about 70 percent of sex trafficked children come out of the foster care system “and are actually lured in through a love relationship or through being offered food and shelter,” according to Istrati.

Other signs of victimization, Costolo said, include the inability of someone to make eye contact, as though he or she has been conditioned to be fearful and withdrawn. Victims also tend to be unusually fearful of police officers. Another sign is if someone is disoriented or confused about where he or she is. If asked where they are going, a victim might answer, “I’m not sure. I’m going to meet somebody here.’’

Physical signs could include an injury that has been untreated, or infected tattoos. Costolo said some slaveholders brand their victims with homemade tattoos.

Literature the institute produces states that sex trafficking victims may be in such places as dance clubs, strip clubs or bars, massage parlors and spas, truck stops, hotels and motels, or working as street prostitutes. Victims of slave labor could be found in restaurants, nail salons, working in fields or on farms, or they could be doing domestic work, such as cleaning houses or caring for children.

“A common misconception in our culture is that sex-buying is a victimless crime. That’s not true, according to studies and reports that are done,’’ Costolo said. “So we talk about the role that sex buyers are playing in contributing to that, to kind of open up the conversation that it’s not a victimless crime. People are being victimized and the higher the demand, the higher the rates of victimization.’’

Contact Philip Morgan at [email protected] or (813) 226-3435.

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