Most people see Florida, and more specifically, Sarasota, as paradise. But there are others who find it a place to play out wicked fantasies. Those others are the “johns” that entrap vulnerable young girls into a life of prostitution and drug abuse.
Statistics show that Florida is in the top three states in the nation for sex trafficking.
According to Capt. Demetri Konstantopoulos with the Sarasota Police Department’s (SPD) Patrol Division, solicitation of prostitution by the johns in the city of Sarasota is high, with 84 arrests having been made in 2016, much of it along the North Tamiami Trail. He mentioned that statistic in an April 6 documentary named “Trafficked in Paradise” during the Sarasota Film Festival.
Is there hope for those females arrested as criminals?
Kostantopoulos didn’t used to think so when he would see many of them return as repeat offenders.
“Eighty percent of prostitutes return to the streets,” he said.
However, since training with the nonprofit Selah Freedom organization, headquartered in Sarasota and which exists to help those girls turn their lives around, he now sees them as victims rather than criminals. His fellow law enforcement officers have also been undergoing similar training, and the SPD is seeing positive results from the newfound labeling.
How did the girls become prostitutes in the first place?
Dede Jones, a Selah Freedom case manager, said the girls often have problems with self-identity. She said the girls usually had been sexually abused as a child and lived with victimization and were never able to see themselves in a positive light. The girl may be a runaway or one who found herself with nowhere else to go, and a predator can pick up on that.
The predator promises the girl a better life, and once he has control over her, he forces her into drugs and prostitution, resorting to threats to hurt her or even kill her if she doesn’t perform.
A woman named Kelli, who now volunteers for Selah Freedom, told of how she had an addiction to opiates and her parents kicked her out. She moved to Florida and met her trafficker, who provided for her and made her reliant upon him.
“He groomed me to be a prostitute and threatened me with death if I did not do what he wanted,” she said.
She found her way to Selah Freedom, got help getting her G.E.D. and counseling and whatever she needed to get her life on track, and now is free of that former life.
“The sky is the limit for me now,” she said.
About Selah FreedomIn early 2010, Laurie Swink and Misty Stinson, of Sarasota, were inspired to launch a home for sex trafficking survivors in an effort to bring solutions to the victims of this horrible reality. After having seen a video of a young survivor who had been rescued from sex trafficking only to find herself with nowhere to turn, Swink focused on these words that were announced: “Who will give them a home?”
She heard it as a call for help and wanted to help these victims. She wanted to be the one who would make a difference, and give them a home.
That same year, Elizabeth Melendez-Fisher moved to Sarasota and was organizing a women’s leadership event with a team from Chicago. Swink and Stinson, joined the leadership team putting on the event. Before meeting those women, the Chicago team had been researching the local area for a worthy cause to support. Asking around, they were repeatedly presented with the horrifying fact that local children were being sold for sex.
This group of women became determined to highlight and help fund a local anti-sex trafficking organization, but sadly, there was none to be found. Out of the need and collaboration, Selah Freedom was created.
Selah is a Hebrew word which means to pause, rest, and reflect. The organization gives survivors a chance to do that. Women in the program have the time to dream, consider and discover who it is they were created to be.
For more information about human trafficking and Selah Freedom, visit: selahfreedom.com.