On June 12, 2012, Florida Governor Rick Scott held a ceremonial signing of HB99 and HB7049 dealing with child sex trafficking and punishment for traffickers.

Kristi House, located in the Orlowitz-Lee Child Advocacy Center and Office of the State Attorney, Miami-Dade County’s children’s advocacy center that provides services and system coordination for child victims of sexual abuse and sex trafficking, welcomes Governor Rick Scott for the ceremonial signing of HB99 and HB7049. Gov. Scott will be joined by Attorney General Pam Bondi, Senator Anitere Flores, Representatives Erik Fresen and Jeanette Nuñez, and other distinguished members of the Florida Legislature to commemorate this milestone for the children of Florida.

Kristi House Board President Nelson Diaz, an attorney and lobbyist with Becker & Poliakoff, who served as Kristi House’s pro bono advocate said, “The unanimous passage of the Safe Harbor Act (HB99) and HB7049 is a giant step in the right direction for the children of Florida. Combined, these new measures will provide services and protection for underage children – recognizing them as victims rather than criminals, while increasing penalties on traffickers.”

“Our approach will be to create a public-private community based partnership to identify and restore these victims, recognizing that these children are victims not criminals.  By empowering these victims it is also our hope that we will be able to form a strong alliance with law enforcement to eradicate those traffickers who view our children as a mere commodity” said Kristi House Executive Director and author of the bill, Trudy Novicki. “I am very proud to say that Florida is the first state to recognize human trafficking as a maltreatment in its child welfare system. Secretary Wilkins has made this a top priority.”

The Florida Safe Harbor Legislation was sponsored by Senator Anitere Flores in the Senate Representatives Erik Fresen and Jeanette Nuñez in the House. Sen. Flores, who urged her fellow senate colleagues to join her in supporting both the Safe Harbor Act, and HB7049 stated “this legislation has given each one of us the opportunity to actually do something meaningful. We look at all kinds of bills every day for all kinds of things, these bill will make all those we represent proud because we are not just talking about it, we’re actually doing something to save the lives of Florida’s children.” Her support was unanimous.

Rep. Fresen said, “We could not have done this without the support of all our leadership. We have been privileged to have the support of Sen. Marco Rubio, Attorney General Pam Bondi, Department of Children and Families Secretary David Wilkins, Senator Alexander and Senator Storms. Their guidance has been the success of this bill and we are deeply grateful for Governor Scott’s support.”

“I am privileged to have worked with Representative Fresen in bringing this great piece of legislation to the State of Florida,” Representative Nuñez said. “The passage of this bill ensures we adequately address victims of child exploitation as just that, victims.  This good bill will protect young boys and girls who are being lured and trafficked in the sex industry in our own back yard. It’s a real and pressing problem that is reaching epidemic and tragic proportions, and we are honored to be given the opportunity to work together on this.”

The Florida Safe Harbor Act passage was backed by Florida’s U.S. Senator Marco Rubio and locally by the Miami-Dade County Board of Commissioners led by Commissioners Pepe Diaz, Esteban Bovo and Audrey Edmonson.

“The Florida Legislature has passed a bill that will help end human trafficking, a form of modern-day slavery,” stated Attorney General Pam Bondi. “I greatly appreciate our state leaders taking a firm stance that human trafficking will not be permitted in Florida.”

“The Florida Department of Children and Families is proud to partner with Kristi House in the fight against human trafficking and sexual exploitation of Florida’s children,” said DCF Secretary David Wilkins. “This bill will help these vulnerable children get the help and services they need.”

In 2007, with funding support from World Childhood Foundation USA and the Women’s Fund of Miami-Dade, Kristi House began developing its model program for commercially sexually exploited children (CSEC) in Miami-Dade, bringing together all the social service, law enforcement and related agencies that come into contact with children living dangerous lives on the streets and under the control of traffickers. Few dedicated services, and no shelters, exist for these children, many of whom are running away from abusive situations at home or in foster care, and are as young as 11 and 12 years old.

Today, plans are underway in Miami to open an emergency shelter and drop-in center for commercially sexually exploited children. Under the direction of Program Manager Sandy Skelaney, Kristi House will be one of the first agencies in the state to implement Safe Harbor. The plan has received major support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation as a Local Funding Partnerships grant program. It is matched by local funding supporters including Women’s Fund, Allegany Franciscan Ministries, Health Foundation of South Florida, The Ware Foundation, Paul Palank Memorial Foundation and List Family Foundation.

Miami-Dade Commissioner Diaz, who was a vocal advocate for the bill in Tallahassee and has pushed for more training on sex trafficking in Miami-Dade, said, “Over the past three years, local advocates have helped us to change perspectives about minors involved in sex trafficking. Through education, we’ve shown that these children are not offenders, but victims who need specialized help. Our state lawmakers fully understand the plight of these children today.”

Senator Marco Rubio said, “The Safe Harbor legislation is key to declaring war on those who prey on the most vulnerable. I congratulate the Legislature for taking this meaningful step to combat human trafficking in Florida. We need to continue pushing this cause at the federal, state and local level to crack down on this dehumanizing crime and help victims.”

“I congratulate Kristi House, Secretary Wilkins and the members of the Florida Legislature for their hard work and determination in the passage meaningful legislation that will help victims of trafficking,” said Miami Dade County Commissioner Esteban Bovo, co-sponsor of local legislation to support the victims.

Kristi House offers training on recognizing victims of commercial sexual exploitation of children every month. For more information or to register for training, visit the Kristi House website at www.kristihouse.org.

Caption for photo at top: Governor Rick Scott signs Safe Harbor legislation into law while Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, Rep. Jeanette Nunez, Sen. Flores, Attorney General Pam Bondi, Kristi House President Nelson Diaz, Rep. Erik Fresen and Miami-Dade Commissioner Steve Bovo look on.

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