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This Dark, Gritty World in Florida Is Being Turned Upside Down

07-19-2016
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SARASOTA, Fla. -- Sarasota, Florida, offers tourists beautiful weather, excellent shopping, and a prime location on the Gulf of Mexico. There is, however, a dark, gritty side to this city where sex trafficking flourishes.

It's why the Sarasota Police Department and the non-profit anti-trafficking group Selah Freedom organize undercover sting operations each month.

Their goal is to divert trafficking victims from the streets to services that will help them start a new life.

Turning Lives Around

In 2013, the Sarasota Police Department, the state attorney's office, and Kindsey Pentecost, vice president and law enforcement liaison at Selah Freedom, developed the program, known as "Turn Your Life Around" or TYLA . The program's aim is to break the downward cycle of women caught between violent, abusive traffickers and tangles with the law.

"Once they get arrested they're bonded out within a day, maybe two days by their pimp or trafficker," Pentecost said. "They would call this person their 'boyfriend.' They would tell us they're not a victim, that they're not being trafficked."

The TYLA program uses the leverage of the law, the enticement of social services, and slow-building relationships to wean women away from their pimps and into programs that provide healing and restoration. TYLA connects with women on the streets in a variety of ways, but much of the program centers on a cooperative effort with police.

During sting operations, undercover officers solicit commercial sex, resulting in misdemeanor arrests and a trip to a Sarasota police substation. Once there, Pentecost or another TYLA representative meet with the women and explain their options, which boil down to jail or receiving whatever help they need.

That help can include medical care, shelter, food, clothing and education.

"We have to have solutions," Pentecost explains. "'I can help you find a job. I can give you shelter. I can give you a place to live.'"

Without these options she says "no one is going to get out of the sex trade."

A Successful Model

The approach is based on what's known as the "Nordic model" which began in Sweden. It offers trafficking victims services instead of penalizing them but treats the act of buying commercial sex and profiting from it as a serious crime.

The process of coaxing women off the streets, however, is laborious. Many have not only experienced abuse at the hands of their traffickers but childhood abuse as well.

"We see a pattern of sexual abuse starting at the age of three to five," Pentecost said. "By the time they're 11 or 13 they want to run away, get out of that situation."

"That's in any socioeconomic status: We've seen this happen with poor, rich, different races, different cultures, different ethnicities," she explained.

Traffickers are typically the ones that find them when they run away and meet their needs. And even though traffickers usually resort to abuse and violence to keep their victims in the sex trade, the women are slow to leave after years of enduring emotional abuse and threats of further harm to themselves or their family if they escape.

TYLA started in 2013 in Sarasota and it has slowly grown in its ability to encourage women to leave the streets. Three years ago, less than one in five women it connected with left the streets. Today, more than half choose to leave their pimps.

Sgt. Rob Armstrong leads the sting operations and says such outcomes are extremely encouraging for police.

"You try, try, try and they're not ready. And then when one finally comes on board and they're ready and they want help, you know that's a huge success," he said.   

Changing Mindsets

Armstrong credits Pentecost and Selah Freedom with providing the training that has helped him and other officers understand what trafficking victims experience.

"None of us had any training back in the day," he said. "There was no training on human trafficking, sex trafficking, labor trafficking--any of that."

Armstrong says he used to see victims as a nuisance. He now spends time trying to understand their background and experiences.

"We're trying to get to know them, trying to develop some kind of relationship with them so that they trust us," he said. But he admits "it's complicated when we do the 'ops' and we're still arresting them."

"But then we turn around and want to help them," he continued. "So, for them, there's a lot going on with them mentally and they have to believe in us and know that we really do care."

The court system is the other key component of the TYLA program. Trafficking victims in Sarasota used to find themselves in court rooms where a former pimp or buyer might lurk simply to try and intimidate them.

Now, a bailiff posted outside keeps spectators out of the court room and a judge specializing in trafficking hears the cases. For women who receive treatment and graduate from the TYLA program, their trafficking charges are dismissed.

"The mindset has changed substantially for our prosecutors," Craig Schaeffer, chief assistant state attorney with the 12th Judicial Circuit in Sarasota, explained. "I think we are now looking at these women, mostly women, as victims and in the vast majority of cases they are true victims."

Changing Lives

Schaeffer says the current approach represents a significant change.

"In the old days they were cases that we would have just sent away and given time and they would have just been coming back through the jail and coming back through the court system," he said.

"Courtney" spent 12 years in the sex trade in Sarasota before she connected with TYLA and found the courage to leave. Her life on the streets began when a trafficker convinced her it would support her drug habit.

"He was selling me on this was easy money all day long -- anytime you wanted it you could get money," she explained. "He showed me a girl and what she was doing and a car pulled up and he said, 'This is your one.' So I got in the car and my very first 'date' was a late 60s white old man that made me lay down in the car and pulled me into his garage so the neighbors couldn't see me."

Forty-five minutes later she handed her new pimp $80, which he used to buy her crack cocaine. That addiction, plus a fear of retaliation, kept her captive for years.

"Once you've been beaten your first time, once you've been raped your first time, once you've been drugged your first time -- those are vivid in your mind and a paranoia comes to you," she explained.

After an especially brutal rape almost two years ago, Courtney met Pentecost during a sting operation. Desperate for a break and rest, she agreed to detox and then to a trafficking shelter.

"At this point I was wondering what kind of place is that, but I was ready," she said. "I didn't want to walk the street no more. I really didn't want to do it."

Pentecost says there's an urgency in working with women like Courtney who face a brutal life that could be cut short at any moment.

"We know they're messing with death," she said. "Whether it's suicide, violence, drug overdose -- they're going through it."

As one of just a handful of programs in the country based on the Nordic model, the TYLA concept has begun to find itself in the spotlight. Communities across Florida are requesting training and may soon begin to adopt the promising model.

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