Victims of sex trafficking have received a lot of press in recent years as they have sometimes wrongfully slipped into the justice system along with their traders. But a new home opening up in the Tampa area will house and rehabiltate them instead of jail them.
Preparations are now under way on the home in Temple Terrace, which will house six beds for the foreseeable future as its founders, Redefining Refuge, go through pilot program status. Since November 2010 a large group of child advocates in Tampa — including the Child Advocacy Center of Mary Lee’s House and The Tampa Bay Crisis Center — have been working under the umbrella of Redefining Refuge with founder Natasha Nascimento to fulfill the dream and great need of having a home to rescue and aid girls under the age of 18 who are being sexually trafficked here in Tampa Bay.
"We've been working on this for years," Nascimento said. "Because this has never been done before in the state, we can only take up to six kids for the first year. Hopefully, we can duplicate the program and have several all over Tampa."
Victims of domestic sex trafficking number in the hundreds of thousands, but little refuge is given to them, with around a mere 80 beds nationwide for them to seek shelter in, Nascimento said. Her organization will take in kids from around and outside the Bay area as they coordinate with the FBI and police task forces.
The sex trafficking problem has had a higher profile in the media over the last few years, yet most federal aide goes toward helping foreign kids brought into the United States for the purposes of sex slavery. Despite this, government officials are stepping up their efforts to increase awareness and crack down on the problem.
"Governor Rick Scott just passed a bill that will encourage law enforcement to be more lenient on the girls and tougher on their traffickers," Nascimento said. "Mayor Bob Buckhorn also declared January Human Trafficking Awareness month in Tampa, so we are getting some help."
The home will open this fall, but information about it and what you can do to contribute is readily available in the meantime. There will be a film screening at Lakeland’s First Baptist Church at the Mall, 1010 E Memorial Blvd, Lakeland, at 7 p.m. Friday. The film, "Sex+Money: A National Search for Human Worth," will be followed by a presentation exploring a movement to combat the capture and forced slavery of minor children in America. The film will be followed by a presentation by Emily Fitchpatrick, founder of On Eagles Wings, a ministry to victims of human trafficking. The film event is offered to the public, in the worship center of the church, at no cost.
The importance of the home is crucial to the mental rehabilitation of sex trafficking victims, who are often at an age where damage is difficult to repair, Nascimento said.
"A lot of the kids that are involved in these situations are foster kids," she said. "The problem is they are often being put back into the foster care system, but they need to be treated in a place like this home where 90 percent of the treatment is psychological. A lot of these girls have been exploited from a very young age, and they often suffer from a sort of Stockholm Syndrome. We are working with several exisiting Tampa organizations that work with cases like these and tailoring what they do to this operation."
How You Can Get Involved
Redefining Refuge hopes its house will be a “community-owned home.” Nascimento believes that “no one can do everything, but everyone can do something.” Local businesses or individuals can get involved by donating their time or services (i.e. hair cuts, tutoring, etc.). The home will be in need of gardening and maintenance as well, so service projects will be welcomed.
For more information, visit redefiningrefuge.org.