Hidden Atrocities (Part Three): The untold story of human trafficking in North Central Florida

“Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” 

Ephesians 6:13-15

Alison Ungaro is a warrior in the fight against sex trafficking. She stands toe-to-toe against a dark and mysterious foe, undaunted by the challenge. 

Ungaro is the founder and executive director of Created Gainesville, a local nonprofit organization dedicated to eradicating sex trafficking in the region. She and her small staff and volunteer team go to strip clubs, street corners, jails, and courtrooms to reach out to the exploited victims of sex trafficking and let them know there are alternatives to their current lifestyle and people who care about them.

Her calling is simple: turn victims into survivors.  

Alison Ungaro, Created Gainesville.

That basic premise inspired Ungaro to launch Created Gainesville. There was no place for women caught in sex trafficking and sexual exploitation in the area to go for help. Created Gainesville committed itself to befriend women, invite them into trusting and healthy relationships, and empower them to leave the sex industry. 

It began in 2012 by going to the places where women were most vulnerable and learning what they would need to get out. By 2015, they started offering support and services for at-risk women. Since its inception, Created Gainesville has connected with over 2,000 victims through outreach and restorative care programs.  

 “We aim to offer hope in the midst of injustice and difficult circumstances,” Ungaro said. “We believe it is through the perfect love of Christ and His promises for our future that we can persevere in hope. Through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, women can experience freedom, wholeness, and new life.”

The staff at Created Gainesville

 Alongside that faith, Created Gainesville designed their programs to equip women with the tools needed for independence, sustainability, and opportunity. It provides awareness, education, and prevention to end the injustice of sex trafficking and sexual exploitation, but they do not wait for these victims to find them. It starts with the first contact.

Our goal in outreach is to meet women where they are at, build relationships, and share God’s unconditional love for them,” Ungaro said. “We are actively on the streets, in the clubs, jail, and the court to reach women who may be trafficked or exploited or both.”​ 

Before Created Gainesville, most victims ended up in programs that almost guaranteed a failed result. Ungaro advocates for specialized care, depending on the needs of the individual. 

“We determine what the first stage is for each woman,” Ungaro said. “What is her greatest need? We help her put those pieces together and journey with each woman. We can’t just throw them in drug treatment. We have to make sure there is a program specifically for their needs. The treatment has to be specific to the trauma these women have walked through.” 

And in most cases, the trauma is difficult to imagine. 

 “A typical day includes intense narcotics,” Ungaro says. “They are addicted, in some cases by 11 years old. Some run away at 13 and are trafficked by 14. They get very little sleep and very little food. Sometimes, a girl is victimized 15-40 times a day for years. It’s like living in “fight or flight” mode 24 hours a day. Because of this, it takes a prolonged time to recover. We are committed to that long term healing. It’s not a six-month deal. It’s 12-18 months minimum, but for most women, it’s years.” 

In hearing the atrocities experienced by trafficked victims, the obvious question is, why don’t they leave, call the police, or ask for help? Ungaro says it’s because they learned to accept this treatment as normal behavior at an early age.

“It’s not like the movies portray. Kids don’t know where their next meal is coming from or where they’re going to sleep the next day. They don’t know who is coming through the door to pick them up and take them God knows where. They’re normalized to these situations. The normalization is what people don’t understand. One hundred percent of the girls we have worked with experienced sexual abuse between the ages of 5 and 17. Their childhood groomed them to be vulnerable to a trafficker.”

There is also intimidation and the threat of violence once they are under the control of a trafficker.  

Alison Ungaro

“A typical day includes intense narcotics. They are addicted, in some cases by 11 years old. Some run away at 13 and are trafficked by 14. They get very little sleep and very little food. Sometimes, a girl is victimized 15-40 times a day for years. It’s like living in “fight or flight” mode 24 hours a day. Because of this, it takes a prolonged time to recover. We are committed to that long term healing. It’s not a six-month deal. It’s 12-18 months minimum, but for most women, it’s years.”

–Alison Ungaro 

“Traffickers will say, ‘you run, and I’ll kill you… or I’ll kill you and your family,” Ungaro said. “Those tactics paired with childhood exploitation, and we can see why a kid would go to school and not report anything being wrong. They may think this is everyone’s situation too until they realize it’s not. We tell them to report abuse to an adult they trust, but their framework is so damaged – what does that even mean? The “trusted adults” violate them daily in their viewpoint, so who can they trust? Traffickers often tell victims, ‘you can’t trust the police or teachers or anyone but me.'”

Because of an ongoing lifetime of dysfunction and pain, healing takes a specific treatment tailored to a victim’s needs. It’s the reason Created Gainesville began Created Care, a four-phase program that focuses on stabilization, rehabilitation, development, and empowerment.

 “Our Created Care program is one of many ways our team is working to combat sex trafficking and sexual exploitation in the Gainesville area,” Ungaro says. “In this program, survivors have the opportunity to heal, develop their passions and skills, and build a healthy, sustainable future. Our mission is two-fold: reaching and restoring lives impacted by sex trafficking and sexual exploitation. We do more than reach women in vulnerable places – we provide them with a practical, sustainable way out of their exploitation. Each of these phases is a step toward healthy, independent living for the survivors who enter the program. The phases build on each other. We know that every woman’s story is different, which means that each woman will have different needs. Created Care is individualized and holistic care.”

The Created Care program typically takes 12-18 months, but for some, it takes longer because of the ground-up approach needed to ensure a full recovery. 

 “A woman is truly re-creating her life. Things that we take for granted… that we were taught by our parents or learned through life experience… they have to learn. Who is she going to spend time with? What does it mean to have a healthy relationship? Who can she trust? They have to learn those things, and that’s why we’re so passionate about getting her healed and restored because the bondage, whether she’s got a trafficker in her life or not, the criminalization has continued. We want to stop it. Real lives are being stolen.”

She also makes it clear who deserves the lion’s share of credit.

“The real heroes in the fight against sex trafficking are survivors of this evil. I have never known a survivor to get out of the life, heal, and keep it for herself. Each survivor we work with at Created Gainesville is passionate about sharing hope, inspiration, and the truth that if they can do it, so can others who might feel trapped and hopeless.”

Frank Williams: Fighting human trafficking in the courtroom and in the community 

Frank Williams has seen combat up close.  

Before becoming an attorney, he was an officer in the Marine Corps and a decorated combat veteran of the Gulf War. Williams knows how to deal with conflict, but it’s a different kind of battleground he patrols today.

Frank Williams, US Attorney

“Human trafficking is taking place in Gainesville and North Central Florida right here and right now,” he said. “Child sex trafficking and commercial exploitation of women is happening right here in this community. That’s the reality.” 

Williams, an Assistant US Attorney for the Northern Florida District in Gainesville, has extensive trial experience and prosecuted hundreds of felony jury trials, including first-degree murder with the death penalty. He is also the go-to prosecutor for human trafficking in the area. His cases include capital sexual battery, sex trafficking of children and adults, production of child pornography, and enticement of children to engage in sexual activity. He regularly assists in state and federal investigations related to human trafficking and has convicted 21 defendants locally.  

But for Williams, it’s more than being the favored attorney for human trafficking cases; it’s his calling.

“I have prosecuted traffickers right here in our community,” Williams said. “I’ve had an opportunity to meet with their victims… children, young women, and their families. I’ve heard their stories, and it has motivated me to commit myself even more to these cases and to educate the public.”

Williams takes his service to end sex trafficking beyond the courtroom. He served as the Northern District of Florida’s Project Safe Childhood Coordinator and Human Trafficking Coordinator. He frequently lectures to public and law enforcement audiences on human trafficking and the sexual exploitation of children, and recently provided training in Cairo, Egypt, to Egyptian prosecutors on behalf of the American Bar Association. Williams is also Chairman of the Big Bend Coalition Against Human Trafficking. He is a founding board member of the Alachua County Coalition Against Human Trafficking.

He sees human trafficking in terms of short term and long term solutions, and at this stage of the fight, getting victims away from their traffickers and stabilized is the primary concern. 

 “In North Central Florida, the greatest immediate need is improved recovery services for women and children victimized by sex trafficking.” 

Williams says that most of his trafficking prosecutions were made possible through a victim-centered approach that focuses on stabilizing and offering support to would-be witnesses.  

“These are really tough cases to prove in the courtroom. It’s a tremendous help to have these witnesses stabilized to give interviews and testimony.”

It’s an approach Ungaro facilitates through Created Gainesville.

“Human trafficking cases take months, if not years, to build from an investigation standpoint,” she said. “The process is grueling for survivors. It is not enough to hope a survivor can remain safe, stable, and in a good place physically and emotionally throughout the longevity to prosecution, without robust wrap-around care and people to walk the journey beside them. Providing holistic care along the way is essential. Without it, many survivors may choose not to report, testify, or have the security of knowing there won’t be significant retribution from their trafficker.”

Ungaro points out it makes sense that many survivors will not report or testify unless there is an immediate place to obtain long-term safety.  

 “Many won’t testify or give interviews unless they are protected and have a safe space. That’s where we [Created Gainesville] come in and partner with other organizations around the state and the country to make sure victims who are ready can find those places and start the healing process.”

Without this safe space, paired with adequate services and care, the chances for a survivor to get out, is dramatically reduced.

“Stabilization, followed by rehabilitation and development of new coping mechanisms, is critical,” said Ungaro. “Without these opportunities, it can be difficult, if not impossible, for a survivor to clearly recall what happened and to feel safe in the process of reporting necessary details which would lead to justice for what was done to violate, exploit, and/or traffick her. This is one reason we are so passionate at Created Gainesville, about the work we do… to make this possible in greater and greater capacities in our area.”

However, Williams warns that human trafficking is a multi-dimensional issue and takes more than arrests or prosecutions to defeat it.

“Human trafficking is a complicated crime, and it takes a sophisticated response. Law enforcement is gearing-up to understand this crime better and to investigate better and prosecute it. This is the cause that’s worth everything the law can offer. Every time we take one of these traffickers off the street, every victim we help will change the world.”

 But Williams is careful to point out that prosecuting more cases and sending more traffickers to prison will not end sex trafficking on its own, however. 

 “Child sex trafficking and commercial sex exploitation is not something that prosecution is going to have an impact on by itself,” he says. “First off, we don’t have the resources to tackle it by ourselves, and the scope and scale of human trafficking are more significant than we know. This crime has been occurring since pre-recorded history. For thousands of years, people have been exploiting people. That’s the reality of it. Human trafficking has been around since humankind has been around.” 

Williams

“Human trafficking is a complicated crime, and it takes a sophisticated response. Law enforcement is gearing-up to understand this crime better and to investigate better and prosecute it. This is the cause that’s worth everything the law can offer. Every time we take one of these traffickers off the street, every victim we help will change the world.”

–Frank Williams

He even compares the fight against human trafficking to a mythological creature.

“The Hydra is a multi-headed serpentine water monster in Greek and Roman mythology. You can’t kill a hydra by chopping off one head – through prosecution. We’re going to have to cut off all its heads with all of us wielding swords together.”

But then Williams points to the essential issue keeping sex trafficking flourishing – supply and demand. It’s his opinion that the endgame in this fight is eradicating the marketplace.

 “We’re hearing a lot about helping the survivors and prosecutions, which is needed and important. But, I’m asking you, what will we do to stop this crime from happening in the first place? Why is there a marketplace for this commodity? If we end this marketplace, there won’t be victims. Our focus, in the long run, needs to be on ending the marketplace. We can’t prosecute our way out of this.”

Ungaro also pinpoints the supply and demand aspect of sex trafficking as the battleground for Created Gainesville. 

Frank Williams Egypt

 “We seek to end sex trafficking and sexual exploitation in our community by reducing the supply, reaching the exploited, restoring lives, and stopping the demand. We believe our part in the global effort to end sex trafficking begins in our local communities. Our goal is to provide effective programs that empower survivors to reclaim their purpose and identity, develop and implement a prevention and awareness strategy that creates a cultural shift that abolishes sexual exploitation.” 

Williams agrees with the long-term goal of ending the sex trafficking marketplace.

“In the long term, we need to keep in mind that human trafficking is a profit-driven business. Human traffickers are making money by selling others for commercial sexual exploitation or cheap labor. If we eliminate the market, we eliminate human trafficking. It sounds simple, but the solution has vexed us since the dawn of humanity. We can change the culture that allows this trafficking market to grow through awareness and stopping the promotion of abuse. That’s what I’ve learned about this cause – it’s going to take a team effort.”

He added that the most common misconception is that we can’t make a difference. 

“Through awareness and stopping the promotion of abuse, we can change the culture that allows this trafficking market to grow. If you really want to solve this problem, you need to make others aware. We need to bring this into the light. That’s how we will impact this… help others become more aware.”

Ungaro agrees that getting the atrocities of human trafficking into the light will increase the chances it will end.

 “Your choices make the industry grow – or stop. That’s how we, as individuals, make an impact. Yes, this issue is big, but it’s one person at a time that makes different choices.

Thursday in part four: Sex trafficking is in many ways a dark and hidden crime with unknown perpetrators pulling the levers of power and causing untold grief to their victims. But tomorrow, we take a look at a few of these criminals – all local to North Central Florida, and put their crimes in the light for all to see. They are the feature of Part Four entitled “The Traffickers” in Mainstreet Daily News tomorrow.

To read part one go here.

To read part two, go here.

To read part four, go here.

 

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