Recently, we had the honor of attending the 4th Annual Human Trafficking Mental Health Summit at the Broward County Courthouse, hosted by Clerk of Courts, Brenda Forman. Ms. Forman has been a long-time advocate for battling human trafficking and hosts this annual summit to generate awareness and identify actionable steps to combat it. Comprised of three different panel discussions, the summit kicked off with an esteemed panel of judges and law enforcement professionals, who shared information on current initiatives in Broward County to combat human trafficking and support survivors. One panelist, Judge Stacy Ross, established a therapeutic court (in 2019) known as RISE (Restoring Independence, Strength, Empowerment) Court. It was designed to address the unique needs of children who are survivors of human trafficking. A second panel featured two brave survivors (one sex trafficked and one labor trafficked) who shared their emotional experiences. Hearing them recount the horrors they endured revealed sheer sinister nature of human trafficking and its far-reaching effects.
After the survivors panel, mental health and more law enforcement professionals discussed their work during a third panel, which included the various ways of identifying perpetrators and the importance of providing survivor support services. Even though both law enforcement officers on this panel had over 20 years of experience, you could feel their emotion, and one even used the word insidious to describe human trafficking. Coincidentally, that word was already written in our notes, though unspoken until that point.
After the summit with that uneasy feeling still percolating, we looked up the word ‘Insidious’ on Merriam Webster. It can be defined as: a) having a gradual and cumulative effect (i.e., subtle), b) developing so gradually as to be well established before becoming apparent, c) awaiting a chance to entrap (treacherous), or d) harmful but enticing (seductive).
Who knew that ‘insidious’ could be defined in such a subtle way? Maybe that is what resonated with us as we listened to the survivors speak. In particular, the woman who was labor trafficked by a drug-dealing father made it sound as if the family expected her participation like a scene from The Mandalorian. We could almost envision a family member telling her, “This is not illegal…and this is the way”.
The sex trafficking survivor was also gradually, yet forcibly required to participate at the direction of her drug-addicted parents. The cumulative effect was evident in her eyes, but the resolve in her heart is what stirred our emotions. At the close of the summit, we asked Judge Ross how we can help and mentioned the art therapy programs Life Preservers sponsors in the New York area. Our next step is to discuss possibly assisting with art therapy programs in South Florida.
One of Life Preservers’ core goals is to partner with like-minded organizations to develop programs to support survivors, while also raising awareness in at-risk communities and educating donors and sponsors. Our hope, through these programs, is to re-define ‘insidious’ and have a gradual and cumulative positive effect on the lives of the survivors.
For over 14 years, the Life Preservers Project has been providing advocacy programs related to human trafficking and its survivors. Jessie Torres, Esq., is a Partner and Director of eDiscovery & Litigation Support at Berger Singerman working to get the legal community more involved. Emily Bartkowicz is the Litigation Support Manager and Akerman driven to increase awareness of the pervasive problem of human trafficking in our community.