LEE COUNTY, Fla. - Human trafficking is a horrific crime that happens in every state and especially, here in Florida. Several local organizations are taking a new approach to finding victims before it's too late.
The Southwest Florida Regional Coalition Against Human Trafficking is working with local shopping centers, training employees to spot and report signs of trafficking and giving victims a safe place to get help.
"Human trafficking is the hidden world in plain sight," Lee County Schools Director of Security Patrick Hayhurst said. "It's something people don't want to see or admit to it."
But, this modern-day slavery is happening every day. Traffickers look for young, vulnerable, potential victims.
"They're in shopping malls or they're in fast food restaurants," Nola Theiss, Executive Director of Human Trafficking Awareness Partnerships said, "other places where young people go."
Those are the places Theiss wants to reach. She's working with Abuse Counseling Treatment, Catholic Charities and law enforcement to develop the Point of Contact/Point of Rescue program. It will teach business owners and employees to spot possible victims of human trafficking.
"Signs of bruising, tattooing that indicates that you belong to somebody," Theiss said.
"Maybe two to three girls with an older male, young girls hanging out with older people that really doesn't fit," Hayhurst said, explaining more warning signs. "That is torture. That is unbelievable prison you can not get out of. That is what we are trying to help. We are not asking people to get involved other than just calling and letting law enforcement know."
They've contacted all the local shopping centers. Next week is the first training session at Edison Mall. Businesses that have completed training can display the program's logo, letting victims know it's a safe place to get help.
"We, as citizens, are not law enforcement," Theiss said. "But, we can be reporters of suspicious things. We really hope that they'll see this as an opportunity to train their employees, to protect their employees and protect their customers."
We reached out to Edison Mall but they had no comment at this time. Theiss said the next step is to work with restaurants, particularly the larger, fast food chains. Any business that would like to get involved can call Theiss at 239-415-2635.