“Johns” and Pimps Who Exploit Children Put on Notice in New CampaignPublished Friday, January 06, 2012
Outraged that Miami continues as a “hot spot” for child prostitution, a consortium that includes the Women’s Fund, The Children’s Trust, law enforcement and elected officials is taking action.
These natural allies have a common enemy in mind - the pimps and “johns” who prey on and prostitute children - and are advancing a campaign to raise community awareness, promote legislation and enforce stricter punishments.
"If you think of domestic violence twenty years ago, we want to move this issue to the same level of awareness," said Debi Harris, CEO Women's Fund of Miami-Dade, speaking at a recent press conference that announced a new phase of the Dear John campaign in partnership with The Children's Trust.
In television and radio spots developed to raise awareness, a cadre of influential leaders that include U.S. Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Debbie Wasserman Shultz and Frederica Wilson join State Attorney Katherine Fernandez-Rundle, Miami-Dade County Commissioner Sally Heyman, and Miami-Dade Police Director James Loftus deliver a series of stern warnings to the "johns" and pimps.
In their messages – "Not in my county," "not in my district," "not in my community," "How dare you!" The lawmakers promise stiff penalties and long jail sentences for those who flaunt the law to exploit young victims. The average age of young girls who first become victimized by the trade is between 12 and 14 years old.
"We're looking to pass legislation that puts an end to this filthy business," said Modesto E. Abety-Gutierrez, president and CEO of The Children's Trust, which joined the Women's Fund early in the campaign. "Our singular mission at The Children's Trust is to improve the lives of children and families in Miami-Dade County. It's a horrific reality that children are being forced into prostitution right here under our noses, and it's time to put a stop to it," he added.
In the weeks to come, the Dear John campaign will strive to encourage lawmakers in Tallahassee to enact various legislation that helps law enforcement prosecute the exploiters, as well provide safe houses and support for victims once they are rescued.
Kristi House, which formed in 1994 to coordinate services for children who are victims of sexual abuse, has spearheaded an effort since 2007 to pass what is commonly known as the Florida Safe Harbor Act. This year, Safe Harbor is Senate bill 202 and House bill 99.
"These bills recognize that these children are victims, not criminals, and give law enforcement officials options, dropping them off at safe houses, so we can concentrate on the real criminals – the johns and the pimps," said Trudy Novicki, executive director at Kristi House.
Supported by the State Attorney's Office in Miami-Dade, Senate Bill 1880 would increase the criminal penalty for a person who knowingly engages in human trafficking from a second-degree felony to a felony of the first degree. It also would increase the criminal penalty for human smuggling from a misdemeanor of the first degree to a felony of the third degree; providing additional authorization for the interception of wire, oral, or electronic communications.
FBI statistics indicate that Miami has one of the highest rates of child prostitution in the country and advocacy groups estimate that 300,000 children around the nation are at risk of being sold for sex, a large number of them runaways.
The Miami campaign is modeled after an initiative launched in Atlanta and joins a growing national number that are supported but Women's Funds in different cities.
County Commissioner Sally Heyman, a long-time supporter of the Women's Fund and its causes, has supported the campaign since its launch in Miami several months ago.
"My interest is in keeping the public safe. The exploitation, abuse and harm of anyone or anybody is unacceptable, and when it comes to children – the most vulnerable – they have to be protected," Heyman said.
Written by Michael R. Malone, The Children's Trust