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Raising awareness of human trafficking in Bay County

Published: Jan. 11, 2021 at 5:40 PM CST
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BAY COUNTY, Fla. (WJHG/WECP) - 201 balloons for 201 children.

”Human trafficking is here. We do have it here in Bay County,” Bay County Sheriff’s Corporal Amy Burnette said.

According to the Florida Department of Children and Families, 201 children were trafficked in Northwest Florida last year. 189 of those children were trafficked for sexual purposes, the other 12 for labor.

”We see a lot of sex trafficking, especially with children. Children are very vulnerable,” Burnette said.

Looking at total numbers alone, Northwest Florida may not compare to the rest of the state.

201 children were trafficked in Northwest Florida last year.
201 children were trafficked in Northwest Florida last year.(Florida Department of Children and Families)

When you look at the trafficking intake rate, our area takes number one.

Northwest Florida ranks number one when it comes to human trafficking intake rate.
Northwest Florida ranks number one when it comes to human trafficking intake rate.(Florida Department of Children and Families)

”We actually have the highest rate per capita for minors being trafficked in the entire state of Florida, which most people usually look at major cities like Miami and Orlando,” 14th Circuit Human Trafficking Force member Dr. Laurie Lawrence said. “Yet it’s quite prevalent here.”

Law enforcement officials say they’ve seen trafficking at the beach and in Callaway.

One of the biggest tells you can look for is “young children at hotels who are not with any kind of parental or guardian-like figures,” according to Burnette.

Another indicator is if someone starts distancing themselves from friends and family. Traffickers want complete control.

”It’s more about coercion, deception, control, and threats than actually containing somebody through a chained or shackled, and abduction situation,” Lawrence said.

Lawrence added labor trafficking is also prevalent in a tourism area like Bay County.

“A lot of times people may be brought in as migrant workers or seasonal workers, and then once they get here they come under the control of their trafficker,” Lawrence said. “If you can’t leave your job and if you can’t control your paycheck, you are most likely a victim of human trafficking.”

Law enforcement emphasizes the importance of watching over your children’s online activities as well.

“I cannot express apps, internet, social media, that’s a huge thing, especially now with online learning and everything. Children have more access to those sites than ever before,” Burnette said.

So, how do we help?

”If you see something suspicious, say something,” Burnette said.

”Human trafficking is one of the largest criminal activities in the world. It usually goes hand-in-hand with drug trafficking, and it is the most complex,” Lawrence said. “So if you see something, say something; you may actually be saving somebody’s life.”

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