Moms would always tell me about the fierce inner mama bear that came out when they had kids. I was the same. When I became a mom, the intense drive to protect my children felt instinctive, even primal. But what I didn’t expect was how becoming a mom would change the way I saw the children of other mothers. It’s hard for me to see a child in distress without asking myself, “What if this were my child?” Sometimes that’s a question that haunts me . . .
I recently became aware of a very ugly and very urgent problem facing children in our area. Last month, I met a woman named Natasha Nacimento, when she came to speak to a women’s group at Citylife Church in Carrollwood. She is the founder of Redefining Refuge, the only safe home for juvenile victims of sex trafficking in our area. I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed some 200+ women shed tears in a room at the same time, but that’s what happened as Natasha spoke about her advocacy work and shared narratives of the girls her organization shelters. What I learned that night about our city has continued to replay in my mind ever since.
She spoke about children who were lured, abducted, drugged, and raped by adult predators. Some of the children were from urban and others were from suburban areas. Some of the children were from low income families and others were from high income families. Some were just your typical children on their way to school. Some were runaways, desperate for love and acceptance. Others were betrayed and exploited by their very own parents. What all the children had in common though, is that they lived right here in Tampa Bay.
Researchers estimate that as many as 300,000 American children are trafficked in our country every year. According to Natasha, a few different factors make Tampa Bay especially vulnerable to this type of heinous activity . . .
For one, Tampa Bay draws large crowds of outsiders for tourist attractions, conventions, and large scale events. With the surge of visitors also come traffickers and buyers. Tampa Bay’s high concentration of adult entertainment businesses also contributes to the problem. Traffickers often prey on workers in these types industries. And finally, Tampa Bay’s high population of homeless youth, who are a group exceptionally vulnerable to being sucked up into the world of sex trafficking, add to our area’s risk factors.
The good news is that we can take action and there are things we can do fight human trafficking in Tampa Bay. As parents, we need to be aware of ways we can safe-guard our children and protect our communities from predators. Here are action steps you need to take right at home:
- Monitor the social media use of your child. Talk with them about keeping their profiles private and never accepting requests from people they don’t know, even if the request appears to come from someone their same age. Traffickers often rely on the internet to lure victims.
- Teach your child never to accept unsealed drinks (even including water!) from anyone. Victims are often drugged unknowingly.
- Ask questions about your teen’s purchases, especially if their spending habits seem to exceed money given to them by you or earned from a part-time job.
- Always know your child’s friends in order to keep a good pulse on who’s around them and how they might influence your child.
- Encourage extracurricular activities that keep your child busy and promote healthy self-esteem. Predators often surf public places like parking lots, malls, and fast food restaurants for children who are idle and just hanging out.
- Challenge and redefine words used as common slang like “pimp.” E.g., a pimp is not a cool guy, but someone who exploits others for money.
As residents of the Tampa Bay community, we can also make a positive difference for children who are victimized by human trafficking. Here are some ways Natasha’s organization, Redefining Refuge, could use our support:
- Organize a drive for items like toiletries, slippers, and pajamas for girls living in the safe home. Gifts like these that promote self-care will help the girls as they work to re-establish their lives and to feel safe again.
- Become a mentor. Redefining Refuge is looking for women to establish positive relationships with their residents. The organization especially needs volunteers who can teach, tutor, do nails and hair, teach a trade or craft, or run activities.
- Contact local legislators to draw attention to human trafficking in our community
For more specifics on how to help Redefining Refuge, fill out their online Get Involved form.
For a great resource on how to join the fight against sex trafficking, check out this End Trafficking Toolkit created by UNICEF.
Also visit the National Human Trafficking Resource Center’s referral directory for hotlines to help victims and to join efforts to end to human trafficking.
I had no idea this was an issue in our area! Thank you for sharing and shedding light on it. And thanks for the great information about such a wonderful organization.
Thank you for such a helpful, honest article to make everyone aware of this horrible activity happening right here in our backyard. The first step is always recognizing there is a problem so thank you for brining that to light.
Absolutely, Colleen! Thank you for reading! It’s such an ugly topic, but we MUST first talk about it before we can end it!
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