By Bonnie Mentel

In January 2013, the Florida Safe Harbor Act went into effect. The Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) defines the act as one that, “helps ensure the safety of child victims who have been trafficked for sex and allows children who are rescued from prostitution to get help from child welfare professionals instead of being placed in juvenile delinquency.”

After the Safe Harbor Act passed, the DCF contacted Dr. Jerry Haag, president of the Florida Baptist Children’s Home (FBCH) in Lakeland, requesting assistance in providing a safe home for the children who are rescued from trafficking by law enforcement or the DCF. Dr. Haag agreed to get involved and has spent the last two years researching what services these children would need to heal. The organization purchased a five-bedroom home in Central Florida, and began making renovations so that each girl could have her own private bedroom suite. The safe home, called Porch Light, is in an undisclosed location and is anticipated to open in July.

“We are working with other organizations like Eckerd, the Department of Children and Families, and Heartland for Children. They have children that they are ready to have placed, so we are going to fill up soon. Unfortunately, Florida is number three in the country for trafficking, following California and Texas. There are not a lot of safe homes for children in Florida,” said Michele Newsome, FBCH director.

 The Polaris Project, a non-profit that operates the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC), documents that there are only 20 beds for victims of human trafficking in the entire state of Florida. And to this date, there are no therapeutic safe homes operating in Florida.

 “In Florida, in 2013, 940 calls were made to the child abuse hotline, involving 720 children. In Polk County, we had 28 reports that were looked into involving trafficking and they were able to verify eight reports. So in our county alone, you have eight victims of trafficking and we’re opening a safe home with five beds. So, what do you do with the other three kids? That’s why there’s a need for education and awareness,” Newsome said.

 When the beds are filled, any remaining children rescued from trafficking will be placed in a regular shelter or foster home, where they might not receive the therapeutic help they need. At Porch Light, the girls are expected to live in the house for 9-12 months. During that time, they will have access to individual and group counseling, attend virtual school and work toward the goal of being acclimated back to their families or transitional homes.

The Central Florida community has been very supportive of Porch Light and has held 5K’s, fundraisers, festivals and back pack drives. Recently, a group of students from McKeel Academy of Technology in Lakeland picked Porch Light as a recipient of one of their community projects. The students raised $1,600 in funds, which they used to buy a washer and dryer for the shelter, as well as laundry baskets filled with personal items for the girls as “welcome gifts.”

For more information on ways to help Porch Light, visit www.fbchomes.org/porch-light. There is also a registry at Target for those wishing to donate household goods. It can be found in the bridal registry under the first name “Porch” and the last name “Light.”

If you suspect that a child is being trafficked in Florida, contact the Florida Abuse Hotline at 1-800-96-ABUSE.