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Podcast: Florida Laws Must Change: End Depositions of Human Trafficking Victims

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Podcast featuring Dr. Jarrod Sadulski, Faculty Member, Criminal Justice and
Dr. Yaro Garcia, Faculty Member, Florida Gulf Coast University and
Janet Ortenzo, Southwest Florida Coalition Against Human Trafficking

In Florida, defense attorneys can legally depose underage victims of human trafficking. These depositions are devastating, causing young victims to be needlessly re-traumatized. In this episode, AMU criminal justice professor Dr. Jarrod Sadulski talks to Dr. Yaro Garcia and Janet Ortenzo, about their anti-human trafficking work in Florida and why it’s so important to change the law in Florida. Also learn about the signs of human trafficking, how traffickers commonly move victims, ways to protect children and vulnerable persons, and how to help victims escape from traffickers.

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Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: Hello, everybody. Today, we are speaking with Dr. Yaro Garcia and Janet Ortenzo. My name is Jarrod Sadulski. We’re going to be speaking on supporting survivors of human trafficking, which is currently a major, major issue throughout our society here in Florida, which we’re all based in Florida. We’re number three in the country for human trafficking.

And it is something that is really important that the people understand what it is, what the trends are and what people can do to affect change. So as we begin, Janet, could you please share your background with us?

Janet Ortenzo: Sure. I am a retired Catholic school educator, both teacher and principal. And after a 40-year career, I decided in 2016 that I wanted to go onto the next chapter of my life.

So, at that same time as I was retiring, there was a news story on the local news here in Fort Myers about a little girl, a nine-year-old, who had disappeared from her home. And previous to her disappearance, there was a young man who had been staying with her family. He was gone and then she was gone. And I remember thinking to myself, “I will bet any money that that child has been sold somewhere.”

And that child was Diana Alvarez. Yaro may remember the story about her. And, unfortunately, her remains were found just about a year or so ago, but she had been gone all of that time. No one knows what happened to her, but that’s what inspired me to start thinking about getting involved in combating human trafficking.

And so I found the, what was called at the time, the Southwest Florida Regional Human Trafficking Coalition, and I am still with them, although our name has changed to the Southwest Florida Coalition Against Human Trafficking.

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: Well, Janet, thank you very much for sharing your background with us. That truly is a disheartening story, but I can understand and really appreciate your motivation and getting involved with the coalition to protect others. Yaro, could you share your background with us as well?

Dr. Yaro Garcia: Yes. So I’m currently a professor at FGCU, at Florida Gulf Coast University. And my background with working with survivors of human trafficking started about 10 years ago. I was the clinical director at a shelter here locally in our community.

And initially, my first case of human trafficking was in 2010. And at the time, there was a lot of misunderstanding, a lot of lack of awareness in regards to this topic and what it meant and how it was taking place in our community. I think at that time, a lot of us did not believe that this was happening here in our community.

[Podcast: Challenges of Prosecuting Human Trafficking Cases in Florida]

The first case that I got at the shelter in 2010 was a young girl who had been on the streets. She was pregnant when she arrived at the shelter and had had a baby while she was being trafficked. And by the time that she had made it to the shelter, homeless, pregnant, the baby that she had a few months prior had been taken from her.

For me, as a professional, I did not specialize in human trafficking, my training was not for human trafficking, but it was one of those situations that really took my attention.

And from there, I started receiving a lot of referrals from other places in our community in regards to these cases, and I started working with law enforcement. And then finally in 2015, I was working with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and we did a very large take down of 21 traffickers in several different counties in our state. And all of the survivors in that case had been trafficked by the same group of traffickers who were in a rotation system all over the state of Florida.

So that’s a little bit of my background. My role in that case was working directly with the survivors. The youngest survivor in that case was 12 at the age of recruitment.

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: Wow, that’s really disheartening, but very important work that you’re doing. And you had mentioned this trafficking ring and the rotation. Can you explain a little bit about what the investigation ultimately revealed?

Dr. Yaro Garcia: Yes, of course. This particular group was, like I mentioned, they were operating in a rotation system. So they had, what we called on the case, it was a brothel system. So they had houses or an apartment, sometimes a trailer, in each city.

So there was one in Naples, one in Bonita Springs, one in Fort Myers, one in LaBelle, Immokalee, Sarasota, Tampa, Bradenton, Orlando, Lakeland, St. Jean City, West Palm Beach, Miami. It was all over the state.

And the way that they were functioning is they had what we called a brothel, which was one of those things that I mentioned, either a house or an apartment or a trailer, usually in the middle of a busy neighborhood.

For example, the brothel that we identified in Bonita Springs was a block and a half away from the elementary school there in Bonita Springs. So it was in the middle of a busy community. And this brothel system operated on the purchasers, the people who were purchasing sex from the victims who were being forced, would purchase 15 minutes at a time. And once the 15 minutes was over, then another purchaser would go in the room, and so on.

So in this system that we took down, the girls were being forced to be assaulted and sold many, many times a day, sometimes over 40 times in one day.

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: Wow, that’s a tragedy. How did the case ultimately become discovered?

Dr. Yaro Garcia: So, essentially, it all started in Collier County. The Collier County Sheriff identified the first victim in that case. And then from there, I had already been working with a group of victims who were also telling me the same story. They were identifying the same locations, the same people, the same names.

Essentially, law enforcement got together, started to look into this. And over time, we ended up with a total of 12 victims in that case, girls that either escaped or had been disposed, and they had come forward and slowly started telling us their story and what had happened to them. Many of them had been recruited as a child.

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: Wow. That’s really heartbreaking. Okay. Wow. That’s really important work that you’re doing and it’s clear that both of you are on the front lines in this battle.

What can you provide us in terms of an overview of the problem of human trafficking, both in general terms, as well as specifically for Southwest Florida? And Janet or Yaro, either one of you, please feel free to take the question.

Janet Ortenzo: In terms of Southwest Florida, I think Yaro probably has a better picture of what’s happening in this area, but human trafficking is another social issue in which people with power or with money or with influence are taking advantage of the more vulnerable.

So if traffickers detect a vulnerability in a person, whether it’s someone who is homeless, it’s a young person from the LGBT community that has just come out, maybe been thrown out of their house, someone who is online who is obviously unhappy, traffickers are looking for those types of vulnerabilities.

And human trafficking is kept well under the radar. So unless you know what you’re looking for, you probably won’t see it.

So one of the very important things that the Southwest Florida Coalition Against Human Trafficking does is to provide instruction, community presentations, or presentations to various types of professional groups on what human trafficking is, what the red flags are that may indicate a trafficking situation, and what to do if you suspect that you see something.

You don’t have to have proof to report it, you just suspect it. And I think that the fact that it is such an under-the-radar crime enables it to continue and spread.

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: Interesting. Those are good points. Yaro, can you add to that?

Dr. Yaro Garcia: Yes, of course. I think Janet is shedding light on two important things: Anyone who is vulnerable. And vulnerability can be defined in so many ways when it comes to trafficking—it can be the vulnerability of being a child, or it can be the vulnerability that you’re looking for someone to love on you, or it can be the vulnerability that you’re homeless.

It can be the vulnerability that you are hooked on some type of drug. It can be the vulnerability that you don’t have a support system. Any of these things play a role on how a victim is recruited initially by a trafficker because that’s what they’re looking for.

And I also think that the other important point that Janet is bringing to light that perhaps later on we can get a little bit more into, is how can the community understand what trafficking looks like and what are situations in which they may be seeing trafficking and they don’t know, right?

So to give you examples of what I mean by that is just in our state in Florida, we have seen so many different scenarios on how trafficking has occurred. For example, the case that I was talking about, Operation Human Freedom was very much based on this brothel system that I’m talking about, but that’s not the only scenario we have seen in our state.

I can tell you that in other trafficking scenarios, the traffickers operated very differently. So they were using the hotels and motels instead of a house somewhere. And that system is a lot faster in terms of movement and how quickly the victim is moved from one city to the other, usually within hours. Whereas in the brothel system that I was talking about, sometimes the victims were spending there up to a week, sometimes even more time in each location.

The other scenarios that we have seen, for example, I know that Janet was mentioning that someone with power or with money or with wealth is able to pay quite a bit of money to purchase a child or to purchase a person who is being forced. On the other hand, in the state of Florida, we have also had cases where power and money don’t necessarily play a role. It’s more of exploiting the exploited.

So for example, we have had cases where the traffickers are forcing the victims into communities where there’s a lot of needs. So for example, in Immokalee or in the fields, and the victims are serving for very little money. So for $20, $25 for 15 minutes of sexual services, the traffickers are forcing the girls to serve these communities that essentially don’t really have power or money. It’s just that they’re exploiting the exploited, right?

So a lot of the purchasers who were purchasing victims in those communities were also being exploited by the system that they were in. So you see a correlation between two different types of trafficking taking place in our community there: labor trafficking versus sex trafficking. And the two things being exploited by the trafficker. So we have seen that as well.

In other scenarios, we have had cases where homeless people, people who are homeless because of mental health issues, because they are using some type of substance, have also been recruited by traffickers to be forced into labor or very, very low-wage payment.

In some of the cases, when law enforcement and I began the process of calculating how much money they were making, we were calculating about $7 a week for 10- to 14-hour days of work on their threats and coercion and extreme abuse and terrible, terrible work conditions. So I want to make sure that the listeners are understanding that it goes beyond just one way of seeing it.

I think the other important thing that I want the listeners to understand is that the other part of trafficking is online. So how at risk are we online? Well, when it comes to trafficking, especially with our children, the risk is definitely there. Because that is one way in which a trafficker can begin to interact with a child who is at home with normal parents and a normal family system, but perhaps is just looking to get a little bit of attention. And that’s all it takes.

We have had cases of that the trafficker began talking to a child who was going to school, had good grades, everything was going great, the parents had no idea. And then that trafficker took the time, three, four months getting to know that child before the trafficker asked the child, “Come and meet me here,” and then that child went missing for months.

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: Wow. That’s a good example of grooming, and also, the importance of parents making sure that they’re aware of children’s activity on social media, games. I think that it’s very, very dangerous out there. And I think that parents really, I hope gain a deeper understanding of the threats that are real.

And we’re not talking about New York City. We’re not talking about Los Angeles. We’re talking about Fort Myers, Sarasota, Venice, areas that are relatively rural, Charlotte County. Excellent points. So what are some of the indicators of human trafficking that the average citizen can keep an eye out for and should be reporting?

Janet Ortenzo: Well, I have a list of 10 signs of human trafficking, and I will just give you some of those because this is part of what we do as a coalition, to present as much information about this as possible.

One is some kind of bruising or injuries or branding or tattoo marks on a person’s body, especially a young person.

Teenagers or young adults with much older controlling adults who restricts their contact with others. And in fact, that particular scenario just came to our attention about a month and a half ago. And it was a local beauty school.

And two men, well, actually, one was a boy, walked in and wanted some of the services at the school. One was a much older man, somewhere in his 50s, and the other, the instructor at the school and her students thought probably in his early teens. And even though they had never had any training about that, an alarm went off and they believed that they were witnessing a trafficking situation.

So they contacted the coalition and I told them, first of all, to report it, I’m getting ahead of myself a little bit, but I just wanted to let your listeners know that some of these are things that they may actually very well see in the real world.

If the person has little or no knowledge of the community or where they are, that could be an indicator because victims are moved around. They don’t stay in the same community all the time.

Someone who has a substance abuse problem may very well become a victim of trafficking at some point.

A young person who is in public during school hours. Now, I understand at this point with COVID that there are a lot of students that are studying at home, but this is in normal times.

Someone who is not in control of their own money or their identification, their passport. That may very well be a trafficking victim.

Someone who is very afraid or mistrustful of law enforcement. Because one of the ways in which traffickers will keep their victims from running away or from reporting them is to build a mistrust of law enforcement, that they won’t believe you or they’ll arrest you. Or if threats are made against the person’s family, someone that they love, that’s also a way of keeping them enslaved.

Withdrawn behavior or someone who is jumpy or anxious, especially in the company of another person. Or unclear or inconsistent stories about their lives so their life story is very disjointed. Those are just some of the signs of human trafficking.

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: Okay, excellent, excellent points. So for anybody that recognizes indicators of human trafficking, the National Human Trafficking Hotline’s phone number is 1-888-373-7888. Again, that’s 1-888-373-7888.

So one of the other things that I wanted to discuss is something that I recently discovered here in Florida, is that we don’t have an adequate protection in the law for human trafficking victims, specifically underage victims of sex trafficking I discovered.

What I found is that in Florida, underage survivors of sex trafficking are subject to depositions by defense attorneys. And this is really concerning to me because I’ve had over 20 years of experience in various different law enforcement agencies and I’ve been through many, many trials and many, many depositions, and there’s a big difference.

In a deposition, it’s typically a closed room where it’s you and the defense attorney, maybe a stenographer, maybe not. But the tone, the questions, the attitude of the defense attorney is much different in a deposition often than it is in court.

And I believe that requiring a minor survivor to appear for depositions where they’ll be humiliated, intimidated, shamed, accused of lying, and then have to also make them testify and relive the harm that they experienced as a victim is both cruel and inhumane.

So as a result, I am advocating for awareness that underage victims of sex trafficking in Florida are subject to depositions, unlike the federal system and unlike some other states, and I’m also advocating for a change of legislation. So with that said, how can survivor protections be improved once somebody escapes human trafficking?

Dr. Yaro Garcia: Jarrod, as you were bringing up this point, you hit a nerve for me. And I’m smiling mostly because it’s such an important topic that for years I have been wanting to be brought to attention. And exactly what you said is exactly what happens in terms of how traumatic and abusive these depositions are, especially for victims who are children.

I just had one of the victims that I’m working with who is a child go through one of these just a few days ago. And the amount of trauma that it causes is parallel to them being exploited by the trafficker because it’s another way in which our system exploits someone who has been victimized at this level, especially a child.

And you painted this scenario so well because that’s exactly what happens in these depositions. There’s no judge to regulate anything that is being asked or said. The verbal brutality of these depositions, the questions that child victims get asked, even adult victims, for a grown adult, these depositions, they’re stress-inducing, panic-inducing.

Over the years in working with survivors, after being through one of these depositions, I have had to spend numerous months providing them support and treatment because of the deposition, because of the amount of time and abuse.

I mean, I can tell you that in Operation Human Freedom, the girls had to go through these depositions as well. And many of them lasted over six hours of questioning, of verbal intimidation, abuse, name calling, false accusations, tainting their names.

I could go on and on all day about how much is needed, that our communities and we all come together to put an end to these depositions being allowed. And it’s something that any defense attorney can request.

And there is very little say that goes on from the state attorney or the state prosecutors. They basically have to agree to it. And I cannot wait for the day that we actually have something in place that protects victims from having to do these.

And I think I want to add something super important. There’s a lot of misunderstanding with this. A lot of people believe or think that this is a federal law and that it’s required in every state. That is not the case. There are many, many states that do not allow for this to happen. It just so happens that our state is one of the ones who allows it.

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: Excellent. Excellent points. And it’s true that everybody has a constitutional right to face their accuser, however, that can happen in an open trial where a judge is present, where a state attorney can object to the abusive questions or tone that’s being used toward the child survivor of sex trafficking.

So it is definitely something that is gaining a lot of attention throughout the state. And I hope that other states, and for people that are listening in our audience that are not from Florida, I encourage everybody to check their state statutes.

And if there is not protection against depositions for victims of underage sex trafficking, for them to reach out to their senators, their state representatives, to get this change made.

Dr. Yaro Garcia: Yeah. Jarrod, I think what I want to add to what you’re saying here, maybe to stress a little bit more of the importance for the people who are listening to please keep this in mind. I know how important it is. It’s nonsensical for children to be put through this.

The federal and the state law for human trafficking when it comes to children says that we don’t even have to prove in court that a child has been forced. All we need is coercion in order for human trafficking to be proven when it comes to children, and that these depositions, they go against the essence of the laws that we have passed to protect children who have been trafficked. I hope I’m making sense.

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: Absolutely. That’s a great point. And Janet, can you add on to this?

Janet Ortenzo: I was just going to say what Yaro said about the fact that if the child is under 18 years old, then it’s automatically defined as trafficking because children cannot make that decision to prostitute themselves, if you want to say it that way.

So yes, anything that will help to defend a child who has been so horribly traumatized is something that we need to make sure. And I’m glad to hear from Yaro that there are many states that do not allow the types of depositions and questioning that unfortunately are allowed in Florida. So that’s where we need to be contacting our legislators.

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: Absolutely. Absolutely. Excellent points. Yaro, You were mentioning about the operation that resulted in victims being depositioned and some of the harm that occurred. For our audience, can you share what it looks like to be a underage victim of sex trafficking and having to go through a deposition?

Dr. Yaro Garcia: Yes, absolutely. I think the first thing I want them to know is that these depositions are set up without their consent. So they do not have to consent to these. So these are actually basically done by force.

They receive usually very little information about what’s going to be asked or what is going to be covered in these depositions. And again, these happen usually in a room, in a secluded space between the defense attorney and the attorney who’s representing the victim, whether it is the state attorney or the statewide prosecutor.

The interesting thing about these is that the attorney representing the victim usually has very little they can do or say to stop what is being asked and how it’s being asked. So essentially, the defense attorneys have the upper hand in these depositions. They’re meant to support the defense attorney in asking whatever they want in order to prepare their case in court.

In my experience, I have sat through many of these as an advocate with human trafficking survivors and all of them look the same. There is a defense attorney preparing a case that they want to win in court against this human being who has been repeatedly assaulted and sold, who is a victim of a violent crime, and now is in this room directly being asked to repeat their experiences.

That defense attorney is going to see if they can find any inconsistency. That defense attorney is going to call them out on any little detail and is going to follow that by, “You’re a liar. You are not telling the truth.” By asking them to repeat horrific details of the things that was being done to them and repeatedly say these things through the deposition. That defense attorneys can find topics which are going to be triggers for the victim, and they’re going to pay attention to that.

The outcome of these depositions every time in my experience has been the same. The victim leaves there anxious and panicked. They lose sleep for days because they are feeling overwhelmed and scared. They’re feeling sad. They’re feeling retraumatized. They’re feeling all over again that they’re not being believed, that what happened to them is being questioned. The outcome is retraumatizing essentially. That’s what happens.

Dr. Yaro Garcia (28:36):

And I can tell you that I have seen these depositions be misused in so many ways by defense attorneys in multiple cases that I have worked. One survivor, one victim sat in a room with 15 defense attorneys, 15 men asking them these questions and verbally mistreating them repeatedly for hours. Getting information about what had happened to them.

Janet Ortenzo: And doesn’t it make you furious to hear this?

Dr. Yaro Garcia: Yes.

Janet Ortenzo: Because we are talking about children and young people who have had just terrible trauma, terrible treatment, treated as less than human beings. And in some people’s eyes, the purpose of the depositions is to allow someone who has done these things to walk away. It’s not justice.

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: Right. You’re absolutely right.

Dr. Yaro Garcia: And I think, Jarrod, so much of the responsibility that we have as a society and as a community is to understand the importance of protecting a human being who has been forced and tricked and coerced into something that is so violent and abusive and traumatic.

I want to put it into perspective. One incident of sexual assault can be traumatic for a person sometimes a lifetime. One incident is enough to cause harm and trauma.

What we see with human trafficking is repetitions, repeated sexual assault and abuse. So for us as a community, by making these changes, for example, in regards to the depositions, we’re putting in that little grain of salt of saying we want to protect someone who has been mistreated in this way.

We want to do whatever we can to be supportive of that person’s recovery and their wellbeing in the future. And if they didn’t have to go through these depositions, that is one less thing that they have to hurt and cry about.

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: Right. Absolutely.

Janet Ortenzo: Yes.

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: Wow. Excellent, excellent points. If a victim of human trafficking or sex trafficking is listening to this podcast today, what would you tell them?

Janet Ortenzo: One thing that I would want them to know is despite whatever may have been told to them, they can trust law enforcement. They need to have someone help them who can truly help them, but they also can call the National Human Trafficking Hotline or text “be free” to 233-733 I believe it is, just to get some guidance on what to do if they want to leave the situation that they are currently in.

Dr. Yaro Garcia: Yes. I can add to that and say that there’s a really good chance that if you’re being trafficked, your trafficker, your handler, your pimp, this person who may be managing you in some way is probably telling you that this is just prostitution and you’re a work person, work girl, work boy, whatever label is being used, and it’s being presented to you in that way.

But the reality is, is that when you look at the background on how this person introduced you to the idea of doing this, you will see that you were coerced and you are being managed and you are being forced psychologically and sometimes physically.

And so, I would want a survivor who’s listening to take a look at that and make some realizations on what it means for them to be in that situation.

And the other thing that I would say is that, and I think this piece is extremely important, is the person who is handling and managing and pimping and trafficking has taken a really long time and has put a lot of efforts into convincing you, the victim, that no one is going to help you and no one is going to believe you. No one is going to listen. If anything, you’ll be in trouble. That is not true.

There are people out there who are going to listen, who are going to believe you. And I’m one of those people, and there are so many other people like me out there.

Janet Ortenzo: Yes.

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: Excellent. Very, very powerful information, without a doubt. So what can our audience members do if they wish to partner with the Southwest Florida Coalition Against Human Trafficking? Are there any volunteer opportunities and how should they contact the coalition?

Janet Ortenzo: I think the best way if someone wants to volunteer with the coalition is to contact us through our website. And let me just give that website to you. It’s https://SWFLhumantrafficking.org.

And we do have a page on the website that asks how someone can help. And there is a form for them to fill out to let us know what they would like to do as a volunteer. And if we do not have that particular opportunity available at the time, we have many partner agencies that are looking for various types of volunteer help either online or in person, whichever the volunteer is more comfortable with. And so we can definitely help.

Another way is to donate, again, through our website because we use the majority of the donations that we receive in small grants, either for our partner agencies or for some of the clients that they work with.

Just as an example, Catholic Charities is one of our partner agencies. And about two months ago, I received a request for help with a payment on a car that belonged to a survivor. And she needed this car to get to and from work, but she could not afford the repairs that needed to be done. So we came forward and helped with that expense. That’s just one example.

Another is actually a client of Yaro’s, a young girl who wanted to do some painting. She’s an artist, and this was very good for her therapeutically, as well as artistically. And so we supplied art materials that she could use, and that is part of her recovery, now her ability to express herself in that way.

Dr. Yaro Garcia: I actually have one of the pieces that she came up with.

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: Oh, that’s, that’s awesome.

Janet Ortenzo: Oh, I would love to see it.

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: Very good. Well, are there any final remaining thoughts?

Dr. Yaro Garcia: I think, Jarrod, the important piece is for the listeners to maybe take away I would say three main points mis that this is definitely something that is taking place in our communities and it’s not just paid sex or prostitution. It goes beyond that. It is children. It is people who are forced. It is people who are being coerced. And it is people who are vulnerable to what’s happening to them. And the traffickers are profiting from this.

I think the second main point that I would really stress is that our community has a say on how we improve the law and the things that protect survivors of these crimes. And these depositions need to go away. That’s something we really need to work on getting rid of.

And the third piece is to please write down the number, save it on your phone in case you do see something or you notice something that is off. Please call the National Hotline and report it.

Janet Ortenzo: Yes. And again, that number is 1-888-373-7888.

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: Excellent. Well, thank you both. Thank you very, very much for sharing this important information and I definitely, truly appreciate your time. Thank you.

Dr. Yaro Garcia: Thank you.

Janet Ortenzo: My pleasure. Thank you.

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski is an associate professor in the School of Security and Global Studies at APU. Jarrod was selected as the Coast Guard’s Reserve McShan Inspirational Leadership Award recipient for 2019. His expertise includes infrastructure security, maritime security, homeland security contraband interdiction and intelligence gathering.

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