A week after law enforcement officials busted a human trafficking ring allegedly operating out of a South Florida massage parlor, Attorney General Ashley Moody and members of the Statewide Council on Human Trafficking met on Friday to discuss new strategies to tackle the crime in the state.
After a two-hour meeting, the group’s first of the year, one thing was clear: A lot remains to be done to eradicate human trafficking in Florida.
“We have such limited resources and we need to make sure we are taking advantage of every precious resource and make sure that we are working together to make sure we are successful in combating human trafficking,” Moody, a Republican elected in November, said.
Moody told reporters it’s been difficult to make sure that people pay attention to signs of human trafficking and ensure jurisdictions work together. Those two factors were key in conducting the sweep of the Jupiter massage parlor, Orchids of Asia Day Spa, where authorities say a human trafficking ring was in operation.
The sting netted several high-profile arrests of rich and powerful men, including New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and John Childs, the founder of the private equity firm J.W. Childs Associates. Childs has contributed nearly $1 million to Republican candidates and political action committees in Florida since 2010, including more than $603,000 to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ gubernatorial effort last year, state campaign records show.
Both men are accused of soliciting prostitution. Kraft has denied the allegations and has pled not guilty to the charges.
The case yielded a few lessons for the 15-member council, chaired by Moody, which is tasked with making policy recommendations that can enhance efforts in combating human trafficking in Florida.
“What I find disturbing is the lack of repulsion for the behavior. There’s been so much focus by the general public, which quite frankly, is our potential jury pool, on making buyers into the victims, and this mentality alone is a huge problem,” said Julie Sercus, an assistant statewide prosecutor with the Office of the Attorney General.
“Clearly we need to put more efforts into education and community awareness for this particular factor,” she added.
Some of the trends that have emerged in the state involve trafficking people for labor, not just for sex, and luring victims through online video games, according to Sercus.
Council member Terry Coonan, the executive director of the Florida State University Center for the Advancement of Human Rights, used the Jupiter massage parlor to highlight the key role health inspectors play in scouring for signs of human trafficking when inspecting business establishments.
“The investigator that realized there was a woman living and sleeping in the very massage parlor, where she was ostensibly working, that’s what launched the investigation and what will hopefully lead to far more revelations about how human trafficking is in great many of our backyard,” Coonan said.
Records obtained by The News Service of Florida show that since 2013 the Florida Department of Health conducted seven inspections of the Jupiter massage parlor. But no red flags were raised until Nov. 14 and Jan. 31, when a state health inspector noted wear and tear on some massage tables and signs that the business establishment was being used as a primary domicile.
Ian McIntosh, with the Florida State Massage Therapy Association, told the council there is concern about an inspector shortage at the Florida Department of Health.
He estimated the state is able to investigate just a small portion — about 10 percent — of illegal activity because of a lack of inspectors.
DeSantis’ office said in a statement that the governor is “very concerned” about human trafficking in the state and seeks to fight the issue with $7.8 million to fund “services and placements for commercially sexually exploited youth.” The amount was included in DeSantis’ $91.3 billion state budget proposal.
DeSantis also said he was supportive of Moody’s efforts to combat human trafficking statewide. But when asked about the Jupiter spa bust, which included the arrest of one of his donors, DeSantis did not comment.
Based on his research, Coonan said he would like to see the Florida Legislature take action on certifying safe houses for human trafficking adult victims, giving human trafficking advocates legal privileges when communicating with victims, and enhancing victim remedies.
“We simply do not have enough ways that victims can sue their traffickers,” Coonan said. “That’s absolutely essential for getting trafficking organizations. We can put low-level traffickers in jail, but until we start getting at the assets of human trafficking, I don’t think we will have the kind of success that we really hope for.”
Last year, Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, proposed legislation that would allow human trafficking victims to sue hotel employees who turned a blind eye to their abuse. But it died after the hotel industry pushed back. For the legislative session that begins Tuesday, Book has come back with a new proposal that does not provide legal recourse for victims, but offers to train hotel employees to spot human trafficking signs.
The council will meet at least four more times this year across the state.