The Senate today passed House Bill 7141, which builds on the Florida Safe Harbor Act of 2012 by improving protections for victims of human trafficking.
Crafting legislation to better address human trafficking has been a priority of Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford, outlined in the joint Senate and House Work Plan 2014 legislative agenda.
“Victims of human trafficking all too often return to a life of exploitation at the hands of their traffickers,” said Gaetz. “This legislation will help these emotionally vulnerable children, looking for someone to love and care for them, break the cycle of physical and emotional abuse suffered at the hands of vicious criminals who engage in human trafficking.”
HB 7141 changes statutory requirements for safe houses to establish standards for residential treatment of sexually exploited children and authorizes safe foster homes. The bill creates a certification program for safe houses and safe foster homes at the Department of Children and Families (DCF), and requires certification in order for these facilities to accept state funds specifically allocated to care for sexually exploited children. The bill requires DCF to create or adopt initial screening and assessment instruments for use in identifying and serving sexually exploited children, and allows a child to be placed in a safe house if the assessment instrument determines that is the most appropriate setting and a safe house is available.
The Florida Safe Harbor Act of 2012 allows sexually exploited children to be treated as dependent children rather than delinquent children. The act amended Florida law to make child prostitution abuse of a child, rather than a criminal act by the child, and allows children who are victims of sexual exploitation to be adjudicated dependent. Law enforcement officers are required to deliver a minor taken into custody to the DCF when there is probable cause to believe he or she has been sexually exploited. Safe houses and short-term safe houses were created by the Safe Harbor Act, and DCF is authorized to place sexually exploited children in these facilities.
The DCF verified 182 victims of commercial sex trafficking in Fiscal Year 2012-13. Of these, nine victims were exploited by their caregiver, and 27 victims were removed from their caregivers. DCF also identified an additional 185 children who may be at risk of becoming commercial sexual exploitation victims.
The U.S. Department of State estimates that as many as 27 million victims are being trafficked worldwide at any given time. The Department also estimates there were approximately 40,000 victims being trafficked in the United States in 2012. Florida is estimated to have the third highest rate of human trafficking in the United States, following New York and California.