by Ryan Banfill, FJA Communications Director
Sharing stories of the horrors and unspeakable acts they were forced to endure in Florida’s hotels and motels, a group of brave human trafficking survivors this week pleaded with a Senate panel to empower them to hold their trafficker or facilitator accountable for the crime against them.Sen. Lauren Book is the sponsor of legislation (SB 1044) she called “lifesaving and vital.” It’s a bill that has drawn behind-the-scenes concern from the state’s hospitality industry, but has great support among advocates for human trafficking survivors.
Sen. Book set the stage for the discussion that followed by reading a letter she received from a human trafficking survivor named Lynn recounting what happened to her when she was 17 and sold into human trafficking after being placed in foster care.
“The people working in the hotel where I was held had to know what was happening to me, seeing men and cars coming in and out,” Lynn had written recounting how she spent most days drugged and tied to hotel beds. “I was forced to have sex with one of the men working the front desk of one of the hotels, who lived on-site. The pictures of me that were up on Backpage(.com) were taken in the hotel room, where men could pay an hourly rate to my captors.”
Book continued reading from the letter, “They willingly ignored clear signs of sex trafficking and as a result, I continue to be a victim of the traffickers. The hotel where I was trafficked and other businesses that allow trafficking by ignoring what is occurring on their property, must be held accountable so others like me don’t become victims in the future.”
Committee Chairman Rene Garcia and Sen. Doug Broxson shared concerns about the revictimization of the survivors in the civil system. The Senators also expressed caution about creating a “cottage industry” churning out frivolous lawsuits.
Lynn – the young woman who wrote to Sen. Book – addressed the issues raised by the Senators.
“Hotels need to be held accountable for what happened to me; and would happen to your children, because it can happen to anyone’s kids. Your kid can get stolen, taken out. It is embarrassing being a victim,” Lynn told the committee members. “I don’t think someone would go and file a lawsuit and go through everything I had to go through and deal with that. I don’t believe so. I don’t think that people would be making fake lawsuits and being called a victim if they weren’t a victim. Because it is horrible.”
Lynn shared how, following her enslavement, she has had 5 years of therapy but continues to have sleepless nights and copes daily with anxiety, and PTSD.
“You shouldn’t be embarrassed,” Sen. Rene Garcia told the woman after her moving testimony. “The ones that should be embarrassed are those that did this against you.”
“If traffickers don’t have a place to put us, it would be a lot harder for it to happen. So, hotels need to be held accountable,” Lynn concluded.
Three other survivors joined Lynn at the meeting. Connie Rose, a survivor of sexual abuse from the age of 2 and became a human trafficking victim beginning when she was 15, all at the hands of her father.
“It’s not just about sex. It’s about being raped 10, 20, 30, 40 times a day. The men came one after another to the hotel room and it was in the heart of Orlando’s tourism district. For $200 an hour, I was a 16-year-old girl forced to have sex with strangers,” said Rose. “If this was your child. If this were your grandchild, what would you want to happen?”
Seminole County attorney Lisa Haba is a former prosecutor who told the committee hotels were involved in every case she prosecuted. She said when it comes to human trafficking activity, the hotels know exactly what they’re dealing with. To illustrate the point, she shared a story about the trial of a human trafficker who enslaved a 17-year-old girl and trafficked her out of a motel and how that hotel helped facilitate the crime.
“I put the hotel manager on the stand to testify and fill some of the elements we had to prove. And she (said) on the stand, under oath that she knew prostitution was happening, she really didn’t care about the age of who was involved, she really didn’t care about what was going on. All she really cared about was doing her job. She had to rent rooms. She had to collect fees. That was her position. This was an individual who willingly admitted she knew what was going on and turned a blind eye. And what could we do about it? Absolutely nothing,” Haba said. “The result is, we have a sanctuary for traffickers. We have a situation where there is [an] open space where traffickers can freely openly operate and as long as they themselves are not caught and fully prosecuted, the hotels aren’t going to do anything about it.”
“The first part of my life I spent it feeling like an invisible person, like Lynn. Like all of these women who desperately wanted somebody to see them, to stop what was happening in Room 112. To make it stop,” Sen. Book said in her powerful close. “The willful blindness that hotels have engaged in, when it comes to human trafficking, it’s beyond bystander effect. It is willfully turning a blind eye on each and every one of these individuals – making them truly invisible. I was a victim. I am a survivor. I am a warrior. I will not engage or allow the system to revictimize any of these women.”
Along with FJA, other organizations that attended the meeting and voiced support for the legislation included:
- Florida Center for Fiscal and Economic Policy
- Florida Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission
- Florida Family Action
- Florida Federation of Republican Women
- Florida NOW
- Florida Smart Justice Alliance
- Florida’s Children’s First
- Greater Orlando Human Trafficking Task Force
- Junior Leagues of Florida
- Paving the Way
- Redefining Refuge
- Tallahassee Chapter, National Council of Jewish Women
The Senate Children, Families, and Elder Affairs Committee approved the bill on a unanimous vote. It now goes next to the Senate Rules Committee. Its House companion (HB167) is in the House Judiciary Committee.
Ryan Banfill is communications director for the Florida Justice Association. E-mail him at rbanfill@FloridaJusticeAssociation.org or follow him on Twitter @RyBan1001.