SARASOTA, Fla. -- The battle against human trafficking by Florida’s Attorney General was honored today at a ceremony at the Hyatt Regency Sarasota. Pam Bondi was honored the Florida Network of Youth and Family Services for her leadership in the fight to end trafficking in the state. (Though she was expected to attend, Bondi was forced to cancel her appearance at the event at the last minute.)
Florida ranks third in the nation for human trafficking, and the Sarasota/Manatee county area ranks second in Florida. But as awareness has grown this past year, organizations are moving forward with their effort to put an end to a form of modern day slavery.
Statewide, the effort to bring awareness to human sex trafficking has made major strides.
"We're really focused on domestic minor sex trafficking, which essentially is child sexual slavery," says Stacy Gromatski, president of Florida Network of Youth and Family Services. The organization works with groups all over the state to help runaways and troubled youth.
"Statewide we see about 20,000 kids a year; and a number of them we're trying to prevent from being trafficked," Gromatski says.
Bondi's campaign has brought a greater awareness to trafficking and gotten law enforcement officers involved. Suncoast organization Selah Freedom has seen the positive result.
"All that works that's been done, all those seeds that have been planted, all that awareness that has been done with law enforcement -- they have made this incredible shift," says Selah Freedom’s Connie Rose.
Selah Freedom has made great strides in expanding their reach, now partnering with the Department of Children and Families to start a prevention program called My Life My Choice.
"It is a 10-week program for girls that are at high risk,” Rose says. “Remember, almost every girl is at high risk because 92% of our girls that are victims of sex trafficking were sexually abused as children."
Last month's 24 hour giving challenge brought in $26,000 for Selah Freedom, allowing the organization to close on a new property just last week.
"We're moving from the city, and we're moving out to the country to four and a half acres of land,” Rose says. “So we're … quadrupling the amount of women that we can serve."
A survivor herself, Rose says a refuge like this new property makes all the difference in changing lives.
"I can only imagine, if there was a Selah Freedom when I was 16 years old and being in that life until I was 19 how different would my life be,” she says. “You know, would I really have had to go through four years of being sold to men over and over and over again."