SARASOTA, Fla. (WWSB) - The Suncoast ranks third in the state for highest numbers of human trafficking cases.
To help address the crisis, non-profit organization Selah Freedom teamed with the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office to host a class that taught parents how to protect their kids.
The experts call it “America’s Best Kept Secret,” but it’s not something that’s seen or heard of often, so for many, it’s hard to believe that human trafficking is an issue on the Suncoast. But deputies want to warn parents that it does happen here and there are warning signs you should be aware of.
“With the rise in social media, 2-year-olds these days have tablets," explained Sarah Pretorius, advocacy and development coordinator with Selah Freedom. "So there is just, such an increased exposure.”
If your child was being sex trafficked online, would you know?
Selah Freedom actively confronts sex trafficking on the Suncoast and works with survivors of exploitation. The non-profit held a workshop to teach parents that 70 percent of trafficking of minors starts with a simple conversation online.
“We want to give parents insight into if they see this app on their kids’ phone, this is what the app does,” Pretorius explained.
This includes common apps predators may use to chat, like Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat.
“I don’t use Snapchat, my 8-year-old daughter uses it on my phone!" exclaimed Rookie Shifrin, who lives in Lakewood Ranch and attended the workshop. "I immediately went in on it and got rid of location.”
Other apps that are less common include one that looks like a calculator but really stores password protected photos, videos and websites.
The workshop also taught warning signs for parents to look out for in their teenagers’ behavior.
“Are they keeping secrets? Do they have friends that they talk about that they’re not telling you about?" questioned Pretorius. "And the different tactics that these predators use to groom or prepare their child to meet in person.”
Grooming tactics like filling a void, whether it be material or psychological, and making the child feel safe and secure by gaining their trust.
“And then from there, they start making some conversation around sex or inappropriate comments," said Lieutenant Robert Andrews with the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office. "And they start to try to get them to send pictures or ask for pictures and then it kind of escalates from there.”
Deputies said the most important thing you can do is monitor your child’s social media and keep an open dialogue with them.
“If your kids have access to the internet, to any device, they’re a target," Lieutenant Andrews said.
The class Tuesday was specifically for parents, but Selah Freedom staff said they’ll be back to host another class, specifically for preteens and teenagers at the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office on August 27. That meeting will start at 5:30 p.m.
For more information about Selah Freedom and prevention tips from their website, click here.