FORT MYERS, Fla. – Seventy-percent of the human trafficking cases in Lee County involve children and advocates say in some cases it is happening under the parent’s watch.
Jamie Walton started the Wayne Foundation in Charlotte County to help victims of human trafficking and for her this work is personal.
“I was being advertised for the purposes of sex.”
At 13 years-old Jamie met her trafficker online. They chatted for several months and then one day Jamie said he asked if he could come visit her. After that, Jamie said her trafficker started flying her out to be with him in Atlanta and would sell her in the evenings.
“He would book airline tickets for me. I would use a car service to get to the airport and I always flew out of Tampa. I would fly to Atlanta. He would pick me up at that airport. I would stay in his condo and he would advertise me online, on certain websites…Things like adult friend finder, AOL message board…I would meet those people in the evening, generally in very high-class hotels and establishments.”
Jamie says she would tell her mom she was staying with a friend and be home by Monday.
“I was enrolled in school the entire time so I guess there was no red flags.”
Yaro Garcia is a clinical director at ACT (Abuse, Counseling, Treatment) in Lee County. She says the stigma of human trafficking victims is often wrong.
“I think the ignorance piece of it tells people the victims of this crime may be someone who is from another country or is an illegal alien or maybe an older adult who’s using drugs,” she says. “We’ve had scenarios where this is not a troublesome home and there is no abuse going on, the simple issue is the mom and dad are really busy working…They’re working hard and this begins to happen with this child with the very simple process that I keep talking about, a cute guy that approached them and told them how pretty they are. It began as a regular dating relationship that then turned into this and mom and dad have no clue that this is going on.”
Garcia says the majority of the cases she handles involve children, typically between 12 and 14-years-old, and in some cases, these victims are sold up to 45 times in one day.
“The amount of exploitation that we see with these cases, we have never seen.”
Eileen Wesley also works with trafficking victims through Project Help in Naples. She says often these children are recruited through parties or online.
“There’s raves, there’s occasions that there’s a band playing and human traffickers strategically place themselves at these events and these girls are watched and they look to see who’s vulnerable. They get them hooked on drugs, they get them drunk…All of a sudden they’re building up this so called bill with the person that they’re partying with and then they’re asked for payment and if they don’t have the money then they’ll say okay then you need to do something for us.”
Wesley says in some cases these kids are forced to work from the time they get out of school until their parents come home.
“What happens is they’re paying off their bill but then there’s interest on the bill, so this goes on for quite a long time and if they don’t want to do it, the trafficker’s person or the trafficker will say then we’ll just talk to your parents.”
Often advocates say the trafficker is manipulative making it difficult for the victim to leave.
“I didn’t want to be engaging with these people, it’s not something I truly desired, but what I did want was love…One of the things my trafficker would say to me frequently was that he was in love with me and that he was going to, he even referred to me as his fiance, that he was going to marry me. He was basically going to be my knight in shining armor and take me away,” she explains.
Eventually Jamie was approached by a friend who helped her break away from her situation and now she is working diligently to help other people in similar situations. She says the number one thing parents can do is to monitor your child’s activity on their phone and computer. Know what apps they are downloading on their phone and who they are talking to online.
If you know someone who needs help or you need help, you can text “BeFree” (233733).