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Student group targets Tampa’s sex trafficking

Published: Thursday, November 21, 2013

Updated: Thursday, November 21, 2013 10:11

 

Edie Rhea was 10 years old when she was first taken to a “sleazy,” old hotel room on Nebraska Avenue and Busch Boulevard.

Her stepfather had brought her to the hotel to be sold for sex to three men.

She spent the next seven years living the life of a normal child during the day and a child prostitute at night.

People Against the Trafficking of Humans (PATH), a new student organization at USF, hopes that by sharing stories like Rhea’s, they can inform students about the issue of human trafficking.

The group held its inaugural meeting Wednesday afternoon to bring attention to what members said is the second largest criminal industry in the world. 

A WEDU documentary about human trafficking in Florida was showcased at the meeting with more than 20 people in the audience. The looks of revulsion were clear on the faces of the audience as descriptions of sex trafficking cases were projected on a screen. 

According to the documentary, human trafficking is a $32 billion enterprise, victimizing 27 million individuals worldwide each year.

“There are still girls out there that are enslaved,” Rhea said. “They need to be rescued, and we have to save them.”

Speakers the from the Pasco County Sherriff’s Office, victim’s advocacy groups and victims of human trafficking shared their experiences after the documentary.

Pasco County Sheriff’s Office Cpl. Alan Wilkett has been working with human trafficking cases for more than 20 years and spoke to USF students and faculty about the cases he deals with in Tampa.

Wilkett told the story of an eight-year-old girl who had been sold by her two uncles and raped since the age of four.

 “In a country where we said slavery would be no more … right now, in 2013, we still have slavery going on in the United States of America, or what we call it today as human trafficking,” he said.

He said Florida is the third largest state in the nation for human trafficking — Tampa being the second largest city in the state for incidents of human trafficking.

Approximately 20,000 people are trafficked into the U.S. every year, with each child’s life expectancy from the start of their enslavement is an average of seven years.

Laura Hamilton is the president of Bridging Freedoms, a faith-based safe house for young female victims of sex trafficking. Hamilton is currently in the process of establishing safe houses around Tampa.

She said she started Bridging Freedoms when she had the opportunity to do a semester-long project on sex trafficking. She had the option to go to East Asia, but decided to work to solve the issue in Tampa.

“The more research I did, the more I realized it was happening in my own backyard,” she said.

In October, Gov. Rick Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi addressed the issue in Florida’s second statewide human trafficking summit that was hosted at USF.

Scott met with more than 700 law enforcement officers to discuss what Scott referred to as “modern-day slavery.”

“It really is too close to home, which is why we get excited about events like this that are kind of aggressively educating and bringing awareness to the situation,” Wilkett said. “The truth is, there aren’t enough cops in our area to tackle this problem alone. We need more eyes and ears.”

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