The year 2017 looks to be much brighter for some of Florida’s most vulnerable citizens with the expected launch of Open Doors, a new, promising coordinated system for serving trafficked and exploited children and young adults, mostly ages 10 – 24. This new model will bring an array of promising practices to Florida that have improved service delivery and outcomes for victims in other states.
Five Florida regions are targeted to pilot Open Doors due to the high rate of sexual exploitation and trafficking in those areas and the lack of available services:
- Northeast Florida: Nassau, Duval, St. Johns, Baker and Clay counties
- Big Bend: Leon and Bay counties
- Central Florida: Orange and Osceola counties
- Southwest Florida: Collier and Lee counties
- Suncoast: Hillsborough, Manatee and Sarasota counties
Victims will receive consistent and reliable emergency services and total care management. Rescued or referred children and young adults are placed in the hands of a team of professionals, including highly trained survivor-mentors/first responders, regional advocates and clinicians that work in concert with law enforcement and community partners at every entry point where a victim is identified.
The goal of Open Doors, administered by nonprofit Voices for Florida, is to standardize the crisis response so all receive appropriate help, no matter how identified or where located.
And not a moment too soon.
Dire Need for Crisis Assistance and Total Care Management
Recent statewide reports regarding the availability and sequencing of services for recovered child victims of trafficking are quite grim. Large gaps in services exist throughout the state.
An analysis by OPPAGA (Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability) shows that for more than half of the recovered child victims, it is unknown what services ̶ if any ̶ they received. For the remaining verified child victims, it is unclear if the majority of funds (74% of the available $3.9 million) went to residential providers because that was the best option for care or if it were the only available option.
“With 24/7 total victim care managers on the ground, it should allow Open Doors to dig deeper into a community and find the right balance of services,” stated Roy Miller, president of The Children’s Campaign. “We already know there’s a huge need as well for high quality, short term emergency shelter on the front end and transitional services as the victims get help.”
These young survivors have a multiplicity of needs from medical care for abuse, potential drug addiction and STDs, mental health counseling, family location services and more. Often just as challenging as finding appropriate services is having total care victim assistance available without fail as victims wrestle with understanding they have been exploited. It’s a critical step toward a voluntary engagement of clinical services.
Traffickers view their victims as meal tickets and often go to great lengths to control them through physical abuse, drugs, intimidation and mind control. Complicating matters is some victims develop an emotional attachment to their captors, viewing them as their “boyfriend” or “girlfriend”. It’s a dynamic to be addressed on the long road to recovery, which can result in victims providing evidence against the traffickers.
As Department of Children and Families Secretary Mike Carroll explained in a recent southwest Florida television interview, the stranglehold traffickers maintain over victims is precisely why there is so much hope for Open Doors.
Promising Practices for Improving Coordination of Care and Outcomes
A unique feature of the Open Doors model is the use of survivor-mentors as first responders, a promising practice showing significant progress in other states. The survivor-mentors will be on-call around the clock.
Since survivor-mentors have experienced what these children have endured, they are better equipped to build trusting alliances and provide support and motivation during the course of treatment, increasing the likelihood of success. Anecdotal evidence from other states shows that survivor-mentor involvement has increased successful prosecutions of traffickers and pimps.
But victim assistance doesn’t stop with the survivor-mentors. The Open Doors service team also includes regional advocates working in their area to help survivors access services aligned with their total care management plan.
According to Linda Alexionok, president of Voices for Florida, Open Doors can help the state begin addressing its fragmented system. “Through Open Doors, we’re looking to provide uniform protocols, training, data collection and analysis that can elevate the coordination of care and system outcomes,” she explained. “We’ll also be looking for additional ways to leverage resources across systems.”
Open Doors is aligned with the latest reports and recommendations from the Statewide Council of Human Trafficking, led by Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, and Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability (OPPAGA).
Florida’s Investment in Serving Trafficked Children Needs Sustainability
Essentially, although laws were passed to move trafficked children to the child welfare system from criminal justice – in recognition that they’re victims and not offenders – the funds formerly used to confine or treat them have still remained largely in the justice system. This has resulted in too few services and significant service gaps throughout many Florida regions.
During the last legislative session, with the support of Senator Denise Grimsley (R-Sebring), Representative Russ Spano (R-Brandon) and Attorney General Pam Bondi and her team, the Florida Legislature approved a one-time general revenue funding for Open Doors.
In addition, Voices for Florida has been worked closely with the Office of Attorney General in applying for federal Victim of Crimes Acts grants to launch direct services through Open Doors. Once the grants are approved, Voices will enter into contracts with identified service providers in the pilot regions, including the Delores Barr Weaver Policy Center (co-creator of Open Doors), Children’s Home Society of Florida and Selah Freedom.
Florida still has a long way to go, however, to provide sustainability for victim services associated with the exploitation and trafficking epidemic.
Case in point: Minnesota, which appropriated $8 million in 2013 to support the first-year implementation of its “No Wrong Door” model of services for commercial sexually exploited youth. Minnesota’s investment is the largest state investment to date in Safe Harbor implementation. A first year evaluation report shows significant progress in the state’s coordination of care and outcomes.
Sign-Up to Receive Open Doors Updates
To continue receiving updates about the progress of Open Doors from Voices for Florida, please click here to subscribe. More information about the current state of services for Florida’s exploited and trafficked children, including the Statewide Council on Human Trafficking’s 2016 Report and the 2016 OPPAGA Report are both available on The Children’s Campaign website.
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This Legislative Connection is brought to you by Roy Miller, Karen Bonsignori and Tiffany McGlinchey