Florida has plenty of task forces created to fight human trafficking, including two that cover efforts in Polk County.
LAKELAND — Florida has an abundance of official committees devoted to combating human trafficking.
In 2014, the Florida Legislature established the Statewide Council on Human Trafficking, headed by the Attorney General's Office. That council, in turn, coordinates with about 30 local task forces.
Two of them cover Polk County — the Tampa Bay Human Trafficking Task Force, overseen by the Office of the U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Florida office in Tampa, and the Judicial Circuit 10 Human Trafficking Task Force.
The latter group, which meets quarterly, includes an undercover detective with the Polk County Sheriff's Office, which asked that his name not be revealed. Christa Hicks, executive director of One More Child Anti-Trafficking, a nonprofit affiliated with Lakeland-based Florida Baptist Children's Homes, also serves on the task force.
“We are definitely making progress,” Hicks said. “Every meeting is extremely productive. Right when the meetings are over, all week, every week, we have phone calls and emails going back and forth to make sure we're all on the same page and to make sure the historical gaps (in services) that were there are not there any longer.”
Amanda Wilson, a community development administrator with the Department of Children and Families in Bartow, chairs the Circuit 10 task force. At the panel's May meeting, Wilson said the local task force coordinates with local colleges and universities each year on campaigns to boost awareness of human trafficking.
Michele Newsome, formerly director of The Porch Light, a precursor of One More Child Anti-Trafficking, is now an independent contractor and is the chairwoman of education and awareness for the Circuit 10 task force.
The Statewide Council on Human Trafficking, responsible for developing guidelines over services for trafficking victims, holds an annual policy summit and issues an annual report. The council includes representatives from the Department of Children and Families, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the departments of Juvenile Justice and Education, one member each from the Florida House and Senate, a sheriff, a state attorney and members appointed by the governor and attorney general.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Mandy Riedel said the Tampa Bay Human Trafficking Task Force, which held its first meeting in May, replaces a previous committee based in Clearwater that lost its funding and went dormant. She said U.S. Attorney Maria Chapa Lopez created the new panel to enhance investigations and prosecutions, pursue grant money and coordinate with rescue groups.
“These cases are very difficult to identify and prosecute, and then obviously we have victims that need a lot of services,” Riedel said, “and so the goal is to bring law enforcement offices together so they can share information and intelligence on investigations and targets so they can work together to share resources because these are very resource-intensive investigations that often take months.”
One purpose of the task force is to vet victim-services groups and to share lists of approved providers to law enforcement agencies.
Disrupting sex trafficking has been a designated priority for Florida's top law enforcement officials for several years. How does Riedel think progress can be measured?
“If we are all working together, that's a win,” she said. “I'm not in the business of saying, 'We have to do 10 cases or 20 cases.' The idea is to make it easier for us do this job we're already doing. We are about putting our head down and working day in and day out to prosecute these cases and recover victims. If we save one child or one adult, that's a huge win for us.”
Gary White can be reached at email@example.com or 863-802-7518. Follow on Twitter @garywhite13.