Thursday, March 24, 2011

A walk on the seamy side, to help exploited girls

A small, eclectic advocacy group tackles the tough streets of South Florida, looking for young victims of sex traffickers.

The outreach workers and volunteers fan out in some of the toughest, most unforgiving neighborhoods of Miami, searching neon-lit streets, darkened corners and alleys, and motels for victims of sexual trafficking.

Too often, it is a search for baby faces.

“You look in their eyes and you know they are young and scared and they have no business being there,’’ says Sandy Skelaney, program manager of Project GOLD, a Miami-based, anti-sex trafficking outreach program . “You know they are living a life of chaos.’’

As part of Project GOLD, Skelaney leads a changing cast of community volunteers — a ballerina, an attorney, a teacher, a Marine, students and mothers — in an ambitious effort to reach minors in crisis and shift the thinking that underage prostitutes are criminals rather than victims. Twice a month, the group heads to the streets to find the underaged and victimized, home-grown or brought to South Florida by force or false dreams, only to become sex workers.

The volunteers often face girls in denial, steeled against strangers. Rescues are more about laying the groundwork to help girls find a way out than whisking them away from it all. And if the girls do take that first step, it takes fortitude and a whole lot of assistance to help restore their lives, rebuild their self-esteem and establish stability.

It’s difficult to pinpoint statistics but authorities and advocates rank South Florida among the nation’s hotspots for human trafficking. Nearly every area law enforcement agency has tackled the problem through individual initiatives, partnerships or task forces including government and social-service agencies.


On this Thursday night, the volunteers include a cop, a social worker, a homeless advocate and a student. They descend on the seamier stretches of Biscayne Boulevard, 79th Street and State Road 7 in North Miami-Dade. Each tract, divided by the group, is distinguished by cheap motels, hookers and hustlers amid the drive-thrus, laundromats and food markets.

The mission is to find underage sex workers and missing children, even those who may seem to be walking the streets voluntarily. They also hope to forge relationships with hotel and motel staffs, business owners and members of the community who may come in contact with young victims.

“Our greatest challenge is finding the victims. We know they are there,’’ Skelaney says. “We have dealt with more than 100 clients in two years, so we know they are here, somewhere, holed up in hotels or strip clubs. Maybe crashing on somebody’s couch.”

It’s just before 11 p.m. and one of the eastern blocks of 79th Street is buzzing. A male, in heavy make-up and feminine clothing, paces and talks on a cellphone. Two school-age boys, still in uniforms, walk by. A small grocery store is full of customers buying cigarettes and lottery tickets. Ami Lawson, a longtime homeless advocate, photographer and volunteer outreach coordinator, walks into the store carrying pictures of missing teenage girls and toting her pet Maltese Rufus, a help in disarming strangers. She waits for the clerk as he makes change behind a bullet-proof window. She shows him photos of 18 faces, all from Miami-Dade.

“We are out here looking for these girls,’’ Lawson says unflinchingly. “We are hoping they aren’t in trouble.’’

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