THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, July 6, 2012
Margie Menzel, The News Service of Florida
Florida child welfare officials are on the defensive this week after revelations that children in taxpayer-financed group homes are falling prey to sex traffickers.
Miami-Dade police last week arrested four alleged pimps in an ongoing investigation of the exploitation of abused and neglected children in foster care, the Miami Herald reported last week. On Sunday, the Herald broke news of a similar set-up in Jacksonville.
In South Florida, authorities said the four men lured teenage girls into prostitution, plying them with money, gifts and personal attention. Starting in January 2011, members of the ring would arrange for the girls to have sex at a building in Homestead. The men collected the proceeds and paid the girls 40 percent. In the Jacksonville case, the teen was advertised in Backpage.com. In both cases, the alleged pimps also used teens as recruiters, police say.
Joe Follick, spokesman for the Florida Department of Children and Families, which oversees children in state custody, said the group homes are subcontractors that don't report directly to DCF.
"There is not a department employee specifically involved in these children's lives," Follick said. "We contract the care of foster children in the state to community groups who then often subcontract that work out too, whether it be group homes or case management organizations that work with these children."
Robin Hassler Thompson, an expert in human trafficking at Florida State University's Center for the Advancement of Human Rights, said it's disturbing that such crimes could happen right under the noses of so many caregivers.
"These are children who are being raped," she said. "So both the pimps and also the johns – the people who are buying sex with these children -- are raping them. It's that simple."
Florida is generally considered to be the third-ranked state in the U.S. for the prevalence of human trafficking. That's due to the many opportunities for trafficking to flourish – the large numbers of service jobs, the agricultural operations that attract migrant workers, the high transience rate, the presence of the sex industry in large cities, and the hotels and restaurants catering to the tourist trade.
Both sex trafficking and labor trafficking are mostly invisible to the untrained eye, said Hassler Thompson, which is all the more reason for caregivers to have proper training and awareness of such crimes.
Follick said as soon as DCF heard reports of trafficking in the group homes, the agency took action.
"Obviously we are ultimately responsible," he said. "But one of the things that I think we have learned from this lesson is the importance of communication in training all the way down, not just at the department but through the people that we pay to take care of these children."
Hassler Thompson credited DCF for having implemented training five or six years ago, under then-Secretary George Sheldon.
"They implemented training department-wide, including hotline workers and child protective investigators," she said. "DCF has been doing probably more than other state agencies where this issue of human trafficking comes to light…So, on the one hand, I think DCF has been doing a good job and being prepared. On the other hand, it's clear that a lot more has to be done."
Among those arrested, ironically, was a DCF child abuse investigator, 46-year-old Jean LaCroix, for having sex with a teen in foster care. LaCroix was arrested Saturday and charged with five counts of unlawful sexual activity with a minor.
"What is the level of accountability for the people who are getting state money and who are providing this kind of supervision?" asked Hassler Thompson. "There has to be some level of accountability because it is so prevalent, we can't ignore it."
Follick says DCF is reviewing all aspects of its group homes and recruiting more foster parents to reduce the need for them.
"The arrest last week highlighted an awful problem, but what would make it worse is if we didn't do anything. And we're not going to let that happen. We're going to examine this, we're not going to shy away from it, and we're going to do everything we can to help every child in group care."
Fran Allegra, the CEO of Our Kids, Inc., which oversees foster care and adoption services in Miami-Dade – including one of the group homes in question – said in a statement that her agency's intervention nearly a year ago led to the larger investigation and ultimate arrest.
"Sadly, as evidenced by daily headlines, this is a terrible, chronic and pervasive issue that affects children here and across the country, she said. "Predators will stop at nothing to seek out and find youth to prey on where ever they are…The problem of prostitution in and of itself is very difficult to solve." Allegra noted that the teens "are victims and we must do everything possible to protect their privacy."