Sex trafficking is not a new issue in Southwest Florida.
This week, the family of a 15-year-old girl at the center of a sex scandal at South Fort Myers High School stated publicly that she is a victim of human trafficking.
According to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, in 2015, 407 cases of human trafficking were reported to the hotline in Florida.
Of those cases, 74 percent were human trafficking for sex and 32 percent of the sex cases involved minors.
“Thank goodness there was a student at the high school that reported it,” said Christy Ivie, founder and president of Christy’s Cause. “The more that we know what to look for, the more we are going to see in plain sight what is going on in our community.”
Christy’s Cause exists to eradicate child sex trafficking through education and awareness, justice initiatives and restoration projects in Southwest Florida.
A victim of childhood sexual, physical and emotional abuse, Ivie founded Christy’s Cause after working with a charity in Thailand, providing support for girls in brothels and showing them alternate ways to earn a living.
“I was on my own journey to healing,” Ivie said. “But I was not brave enough to look around my community and see the issue. I kind of wanted to put my head in the sand.”
She founded Christy’s Cause after a 2014 trip to Cambodia and originally had a global scope for the charity. But, after meeting and training with Alex Olivares, coordinator for the Human Trafficking Resource Center at FGCU, her focus changed.
“As I began to get training, I realized that the issue is here in our community,” Ivie said. “Florida ranks third in reported cases of human trafficking.”
The first focus of Christy’s Cause is education and awareness.
The charity recently produced a PSA that focuses on teens being lured into human trafficking. It was shared on YouTube, Facebook and on christyscause.com in hopes of reaching teens, parents and the community.
Christy’s Cause also focuses on justice initiatives in the hopes of making consequences more severe for traffickers.
In April, Moses Rodriguez plead guilty to three felony accounts for his role in a human and sex trafficking ring that operated in Central and Southwest Florida. He was sentenced to three years in prison and three years probation if he provides assistance to prosecutors who have charged an additional 14 people in the case.
“It was really disgusting, the short sentence he received for trafficking humans,” Ivie said.
She noted that as consequences for drug trafficking have increased, criminals have moved to human trafficking.
“They are not doing as much time,” Ivie said. “That’s something we all can work on. We can advocate for tougher laws.”
One of the most important components of Christy’s Cause is restoration.
The non-profit works with two safe houses in Lee County, Our Mother’s Home and Wings of Shelter.
“They are on the frontlines, dealing with the aftermath,” Ivie explained. Programs are needed for both male and female victims.
“I know that we have an issue with boys being trafficked,” she said. “I think this has caught us off guard. We don’t have enough safe houses for boys. We don’t have enough beds for girl victims that are rescued.”
Part of restoration is identifying minors that are victims of sex trafficking.
According to the trafficking resource center at FGCU, minor victims may have unexplained absences form school, run away from home multiple times, make references or use sexual terms that are beyond the age-specific norm, or may engage in promiscuous behavior.
“Traffickers will brand their girls with tattoos,” Ivie noted. “Students begin missing class or are exhausted in school. Girls begin to dress different, their lifestyle changes, they travel a lot. Things just don’t add up.”
The PSA is the first step for Christy’s Cause, arriving at a time when the community is faced with the reality of human trafficking and the role it played in the case at South Fort Myers High School.
“My desire and my heart would be that the community would say not here, not in Southwest Florida,” Ivie explained. “We are going to do whatever is necessary to make sure that we are diligent, that we rally together as a community to put an end to this. And walk alongside the victims to get them the healing that they need to move forward with their lives.’
If you suspect human trafficking or are a victim, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888 or text BeFree (233733).
Christy’s Cause christyscause.com
FGCU Human Trafficking Resource Center fgcu.edu/HTRC
Our Mother’s Home of Southwest Florida, Inc. ourmothershome.com
Wings of Shelter Int’l, Inc. wingsofshelter.com