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Some human trafficking advocates object to Florida’s new tip line

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Some human trafficking advocates object to Florida’s new tip line

May 22, 2024 | 7:00 am ET
By Mitch Perry
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Some human trafficking advocates object to Florida’s new tip line
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Florida Channel screenshot of Attorney General Ashley Moody speaking in Coral Gables on May 13, 2024.

A law set to go into effect in Florida on July 1 mandates the display of human-trafficking awareness signs in public spaces where that activity is likely to occur. The signs will include a Florida-specific tip line for individuals to report human trafficking, in addition to the existing national hotline.

Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody says the policy (HB 7063) will ensure that law enforcement in Florida is aware of any and all types of information about human trafficking in the state. As Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the new law last week in Coral Gables, Moody criticized the National Human Trafficking Hotline, operated by an organization called Polaris, because it doesn’t always refer tips to law enforcement.

“We see organizations that have abandoned their original mission. A hotline that was propped up to help law enforcement rescue survivors no longer doing that,” Moody said of the national hotline.

“When you see them pushing a radical agenda, an agenda that has been proven not to work in city after city and state after state all around our nation, when the goal is not to help law enforcement accomplish their mission but to obstruct law enforcement in accomplishing their mission, they should be called out and they should be defunded and states need to do what they must to take back that responsibility.”

Some human trafficking survivors and their advocates strongly disagree, pointing to a distinct difference between a hotline — a telephone number you call when you need help or resources — and a tip line, where such calls go directly to law enforcement.

The divide is less ideological than philosophical. Although Florida is one of the first states to create its own human trafficking tip line, Moody’s sentiments about the National Human Trafficking Hotline not directing all of the calls they receive to law enforcement was shared by 35 other state attorneys general last year, from both blue and red states, who sent a letter to congressional leaders claiming that “it appears to us that the Hotline is not performing the services it is already funded to perform.”

“Without changes to Polaris’s operating procedures, our state anti-trafficking initiatives gain little from participation in the National Hotline,” the letter reads. “As such, individual states may be forced to establish their own state hotlines, as some already have begun to do. A nationally run hotline not only achieves cost-efficiencies, but also ensures a uniform approach and allows for the collection of cross-state information with regard to human trafficking tips.”

Empowering survivors 

Not everyone concerned about the safety and welfare of human trafficking survivors agrees — there are advocates who see legitimate reasons why tips called into the hotline need not immediately be sent directly to law enforcement.

Some human trafficking advocates object to Florida’s new tip line
Emma Ecker. Source: Freedom Network USA

“Across the board from survivors, we’re hearing that requiring law enforcement reporting for adults who do not consent for that information to be shared is very harmful,” said Emma Ecker, senior policy specialist with Freedom Network USA, a national organization consisting of service providers, legal advocates, survivors, academics, and others who help survivors through their post-trafficking experiences.

The National Human Trafficking Hotline is funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and has been operated since 2007 by Polaris, a Washington-based nongovernmental organization.

Rafael Flores, director of communications for Polaris, told the Phoenix that the Polaris is a “mandatory reporter,” meaning it must report immediately all situations involving the abuse, neglect, or trafficking of a minor to the appropriate child welfare or law enforcement agencies.

But Flores confirmed that when it comes to adult victims of human trafficking, Polaris has “engaged law enforcement in 30% of all potential trafficking situations handled by the Trafficking Hotline annually.”

“[H]uman traffickers very regularly threaten victims and their loved ones if someone involves law enforcement. Thus, immediate law enforcement involvement is not always the safest option for a caller,” Flores said.

“Our protocols require that we put the safety of callers first and foremost when supporting callers in their times of need. A single national hotline number also allows human trafficking victims, survivors, and their loved ones to call us from anywhere they are located, regardless of jurisdiction and regardless of the needs they have at the moment they call.”

The rules

The hotline’s operations are governed by what is called the Notice of Funding Opportunity within the Department of Health and Human Services, last published in 2020. Polaris involves law enforcement “when protocol requires that we do so, as prescribed by HHS guidelines,” Flores added.

These are the times when the guidelines mandate that the hotline must share information with law enforcement:

  • A potential victim directs someone to contact the hotline on their behalf.
  • A potential victim involved in commercial sex is under the age of 18 at the time of the report.
  • There is a clear indication of active violence and the potential victim is in imminent danger of serious bodily harm or death.
  • The potential victim asks the hotline to make a report on their behalf or anonymously.

The letter sent by the attorneys general about Polaris spurred immediate congressional action last year by Republican U.S. Rep. Laurel Lee of Hillsborough County, who filed the proposed National Human Trafficking Hotline Enhancement Act. Democratic U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, also of Hillsborough County, signed on as co-sponsor. The bill would require entities under contract with the National Human Trafficking Hotline to cooperate with state and local law enforcement agencies when receiving tips.

The bill passed the House Judiciary Committee last November and its next step would be a vote on the floor of the U.S. House, although it’s uncertain when that would happen, said Grace Bartlinski, communications director for Lee.

Some human trafficking advocates object to Florida’s new tip line
U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor of Tampa. Screenshot: House.gov
Some human trafficking advocates object to Florida’s new tip line
U.S. Rep. Laurel Lee, March 10, 2023. Credit: U.S. House of Representatives

“Disrupting human trafficking requires an all-hands-on-deck approach that encourages the public to report suspicious activities and victims to reach out for help,” Castor told the Phoenix in an email.

“As a bipartisan coalition of state attorneys general suggested, it is imperative that calls to the National Human Trafficking Hotline involve law enforcement while preserving victim safety and privacy. Every piece of information can contribute to dismantling trafficking networks and rescuing survivors from further exploitation while acknowledging the profound trauma experienced by victims and survivors,” Castor wrote.

Castor said she has been inspired by the work at the Trafficking in Persons Risk to Resilience Lab on the University of South Florida St. Petersburg campus, which contributed nearly $1 million earlier this year toward a statewide human trafficking data repository called TIPSTR.

‘Misleading and confusing’

However, a number of state and regional organizations that work with victims of human trafficking oppose the Lee/Castor bill and told members of Congress that in their own letter sent last year.

“Public awareness efforts that misrepresent the role of the hotline as a place to send tips to law enforcement are misleading and confusing,” the letter says.

“However, to replace the national hotline with a national or state ‘hotline’ that automatically reports to law enforcement is equally misleading and more damaging and will erode trafficking victims’ already-shaky trust in systems when they call for help and instead are funneled into non-consensual engagement with law enforcement,” the letter continues (emphasis in the original).

Some human trafficking advocates object to Florida’s new tip line
Independent journalist and child trafficking survivor Sabra Boyd (photo credit: Medium)

Seattle-based freelance journalist Sabra Boyd has described being trafficked by her father as a child and again as a homeless teenager in Portland. She emphasizes the differences between hotlines and tip lines.

“For example, we have domestic violence hotlines, and data shows that domestic violence has a lot of overlap with human trafficking, yet Gov. DeSantis and A.G. Moody aren’t suggesting that every single domestic violence hotline call should get routed to police instead of a local shelter and DV [domestic violence] advocate who can help victims navigate what resources and options are available,” she told the Phoenix by email.

Boyd added that her first trafficker, her father, was a confidential police informant “and violent organized crime boss.”

“I can’t rely on just any random police officer to possibly understand everything that needs to be in place for one of his victims’ safety,” she wrote.

“If someone he was trafficking called a hotline, asking for help with tangible needs like a safe place to stay, but the hotline immediately routed the call to law enforcement, that would likely put their life in danger instead of providing the help they took great risk in reaching out to ask for. Just like domestic violence victims, our protocols should first and foremost ask survivors what they need to be safe, and then if they want to press charges and ask police to investigate you go from there.”

Not safe

Nicole Avila is anti-trafficking supervising attorney for Florida Legal Services, which serves low-income individuals and families. In many cases, she said, human trafficking survivors might not feel safe going directly to law enforcement.

“Having the hotline become a tip line would most likely cause survivors to not access the help that they need and not make that call, knowing that law enforcement would be engaged right away and take agency away from the survivors, which is essentially what trafficking in large part is,” she told the Phoenix by telephone.

Another reason why some trafficking survivors are not ready immediately to engage with law enforcement, Avila said, is that they may have been involved in “forced criminality,” exploited by being forced to engage in illegal activities such as street crime, begging, or drug trafficking, as defined in a 2014 U.S. State Department report.

“We encounter folks who either have warrants or pending criminal cases because of the ‘forced criminality’ aspect, so it may not be safe for them to engage with law enforcement without taking care of those pending things first, because it could lead to additional criminalization and incarceration,” Avila said.

Some human trafficking advocates object to Florida’s new tip line
Polaris CEO Catherine Chen (photo credit: Polaris)

In her comments supporting the new Florida legislation last week, Moody blasted Polaris CEO Catherine Chen, calling her a “Columbia- and Stanford-educated self-described social justice warrior.”

In an accompanying press release, Moody cited Chen’s hiring in 2020 and her quote that “we cannot arrest our way out of this problem” as a factor in why Polaris changed its mission of sending all of the tips from the hotline to law enforcement

However, Flores told the Phoenix that the 30% rate of engaging law enforcement “has been consistent since 2015.”

The letter from the 36 attorneys general raising concerns about the National Human Trafficking Hotline was organized by Democratic Attorney General Kathy Jennings of Delaware and Republican Attorney General Lynn Fitch of Mississippi. Neither replied to requests for comment.

The Florida human trafficking hotline is 1-855-FLA-SAFE. The National Human Trafficking Hotline is 1-888-373-7888. They will be located in areas like rest area service plazas, emergency rooms, strip clubs, truck stops, restaurants, message parlors, and other places where sex and labor trafficking may be taking place throughout the state.