CLEWISTON -- The Hendry County Tourist Development Council got a boost from the Hendry County BOCC with its approval of up to $1,500 in expenditures for its human trafficking awareness training for hotel partners.
The money will be used for refreshments during classes conducted by the TDC and the Hendry County Sheriff's Office.
Commissioners had already approved the funding Aug. 12 but wanted more discussion about the program before the final vote Aug. 24.
The TDC’s effort includes a partnership with Hendry County Sheriff’s Office, said TDC Tourism Development Coordinator Erin Hitsman who sought to include the HCBOCC in the partnership along with area hotels and other tourism entities.
Hendry County Sheriff Steve Whidden said he likes how the program works because the nature of the crime requires more than just traditional police work.
“One of the most difficult things in the world to make an arrest on is human trafficking, because typically victims do not want to cooperate – they’re scared.”
He said it is rare to hear about human trafficking arrests even in larger counties or reported on the news.
“How many times do you hear that human trafficking arrests were made,” he said. “It’s pretty rare. I’m interested to see how this works as far as the data and all that goes.”
Human trafficking awareness training is a state requirement for front-of-the-line hotel staff, something Hitsman said hotel partners have found difficult to arrange in-house.
A location that can accomodate a large number of interested hoteliers, restarants and staff members is the plan, and the contribution by the BOCC will help provide a light meal or other refreshments.
Human trafficking awareness training is a state requirement for front-of-the-line hotel staff, Hitsman said in her report, confirmed by Commissioner Ramon Iglesias who shared his experience of the strict requirements and expense of training.
Iglesias said the state required he be certified by a certain date or face a $2,000 per day fine.
“I was the first one at the marina to get certified,” he said.
The training details how human trafficking works, what the tell-tale signs are that hotel staff can pick up on such as people renting hotel rooms without luggage, declining hotel services and men speaking for the women.
The training provided would more than satisfy hotelier training requirements and create a high level of awareness of what is and can happen on a local level, that most are not aware of, Hitsman said in her report.
South Florida is a major threat region for human trafficking. Many trafficking victims are lured into the system with the promise of legitimate jobs, while others are kidnapped or entrapped in various ways. They are enslaved and faced with violence and torture, including threats of death.
Iglesias said the education and training brings awareness to the community.
“It’s not just a white van down the street or a container home,” he said.
“After I went through the course it opened your eyes,” he said. “It’s disappointing because the statistics are high. It’s world-wide of course, but the statistics that we have in the United States will just blow your mind.”
Commissioner Karson Turner asked how law enforcement handles human trafficking and if it was prevalent in Hendry County.
Whidden said leads from community members are a big part of how police address the problem, noting people have approached police over concerns about restaurant employees who are working for nothing.
He pointed to the high volume of immigrants crossing the border as part of the increase in the activity.
They owe the cartels or others for assisting them. Helpless, they are forced to suffer abuses and treated as slaves to pay off their debt.
“I think we’re going to see a lot more cases coming up in the near future,” he said.
Hitsman said that Sgt. Wanda Hainley oversees the majority of the training and the program and conducts the classes.
Commissioners approved the expenditure in a 5-0 vote.