How Florida is working to identify young victims of human trafficking
A conversation with Bethany Gilot, Human Trafficking Director at the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice
The youngest victims of human trafficking often slip under the radar. Many are afraid to speak up or don’t completely understand what has happened to them.
Compounding the problem, minors who are trafficking victims can be arrested for nonviolent offenses related to their exploitation, like truancy, substance abuse, and running away. These charges can leave the victims trapped in the justice system for years without assistance.
In Florida, state officials understand the need to identify young trafficking victims, especially in the juvenile justice system, and the challenge of coordinating across agencies. Florida’s new Human Trafficking Screening Tool (HTST) offers state officials the ability to recognize and get help for young people who are possible trafficking victims or survivors.
The tool, developed by a joint team of the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) and the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ), is a detailed questionnaire designed to identify youths entering the juvenile justice system who may be victims of sex or labor trafficking.
State agencies use the tool to ensure survivors are accurately identified and able to get the right support services they need, says Bethany Gilot, human trafficking director for the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice.
“I used to be a victim advocate, so I tend to take a victim advocate approach,” Gilot says. “I want to do the best by each and every one of them.”
In a recent interview, edited for clarity, Gilot discussed the impetus for the tool and how it’s being used.
Pathways to Freedom: How did the HTST get started?
Gilot: We had so many survivors talking about how they had some involvement with the juvenile justice system while they were being exploited, and we know from testimony and the research that is out there that so many of these kids are crossing our system.
We initiated the human trafficking tool in 2015. It’s our effort as an agency to make sure we’re identifying trafficking victims that are coming through our system that might not have any obvious indications of trafficking or might not be disclosing that they’re trafficking victims. We are putting in this effort to make sure we’re asking young people these questions and giving them the opportunity to disclose victimization, as well as identifying youths that have some serious risk factors that may lead them to be vulnerable for trafficking.
Pathways to Freedom: What are the key questions asked and types of information collected through the HTST?
Gilot: It’s about a 50-question tool, so it’s quite extensive. The first sections cover pretty basic information—name, demographic information, and background. Then there are sections that cover specific things to trafficking.
A couple of the questions are related to labor trafficking, such as:
- What kind of job do you have?
- Are you paid at least minimum wage?
- Is there anything about your work that is not safe?
We explain to youth that work doesn’t necessarily mean your standard idea of employment, like a retail store or fast food restaurant. It could also mean odd jobs, mowing the lawn. A lot of our domestic trafficking youth are trafficked via labor jobs like door-to-door sales.
There are questions on history of sex abuse because we know that a history of sex abuse is a huge risk factor for kids to be exploited. There are also questions that get straight to the point, like: Have you received anything in exchange for sex?
There are also questions about healthy relationships: Do you have a boyfriend or girlfriend? How old are they? Questions on tattoos: What do the tattoos mean? Questions on runaway history. Basically anything that can be identified as a risk factor will have a question related to it.
Pathways to Freedom: Florida’s screening tool is designed not to exclude any victims—particularly victims of labor trafficking. Does this issue significantly affect the region?
Gilot: We know we have a huge labor trafficking problem in Florida and kids come through our system that have been trafficked in labor. But a lot of the screening tools out there are specifically targeting sex trafficking. We knew we wanted an ability to identify kids that are victims of labor trafficking.
We want to make sure for any of the kids with a job coming to our system, there are protections around them—child labor laws are being followed, that they understand what minimum wage is.
We listen for things that aren’t compliant with child labor laws. If they mention working in a hazardous environment such as door-to-door sales, selling items at a gas station, or if they are working in a restaurant and they are around any dangerous equipment, anything along those lines is what those targeted labor trafficking laws are for.
Pathways to Freedom: What kind of training is provided to DJJ and DCF staff members administering the screening tool?
Gilot: Before anybody can use the tool, they have to go through our four-hour training. It’s a pretty intensive training before they’re even allowed to screen a victim.
The first challenge is getting every screening employee in the state trained for the tool. We have local trainers that train our screeners and they have to be retrained on an annual basis.
Pathways to Freedom: How is the HTST put to use?
Gilot: When a child is brought into the system, the DJJ shares the information gathered by the screening with DCF. That way, a victim doesn’t have to be screened twice and experience the trauma again.
Our year one [2015-16] data identified close to 600 youth from the screening. Each case needs to be addressed in 24 hours. Then the best service for this kid will be determined. It’s collaborative at that point, with DCF taking the lead. There’s an action plan on what services that youth is going to be referred to. If the youth is in a detention center, we work closely with the center. There’s court advocacy involved, where a counselor presents or argues the survivor’s case in court. It’s a team effort to make sure the kids get the services they need.
For more information, view a presentation on Florida’s Human Trafficking Screening Tool.