The Wellington Chamber of Commerce hosted Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg as its guest speaker at a luncheon held Wednesday, Sept. 25 at the International Polo Club Palm Beach.
Aronberg took the opportunity to give a detailed presentation on human trafficking to a room full of local business leaders.
Aronberg brought a touch of humor to an otherwise very serious subject by noting some of the high-profile cases that have come out of his office in recent years.
“This county has the craziest cases in the country. I challenge you to find another office that has as many well-publicized cases as Palm Beach County. We’ve had some of the most famous misdemeanors in the world,” Aronberg said.
Aronberg has worked for years in the fight against the opioid crisis, which led to his more recent focus on human trafficking.
“When I took over, I saw there was a real issue with corrupted sober homes and drug treatment centers, and it was feeding the opioid epidemic. So, we targeted them through our Sober Homes Task Force, and that led to a 40 percent decrease in opioid overdose deaths. We are very proud of that number because it’s saving lives,” Aronberg said.
He next defined human trafficking and explained the two types: labor and sex trafficking. Both of these include the exploitation of another person.
“Silence is the enemy when it comes to human trafficking,” Aronberg said. “We need you to be our first level of defense. Say something if you see something.”
He then explained how human trafficking is modern slavery, referencing a Time magazine story that there are more slaves today than at any other point in human history.
“Exploitation is the key. Most victims are not kidnapped or smuggled,” Aronberg said. “The majority of sex trafficking victims are from the United States. They are runaways and others. The majority of labor trafficking victims come from out of the country.”
Florida ranks third in the nation in human trafficking, and Palm Beach County is third in the state for suspected cases. Over a third of all sex trafficking cases involve minors, often as young as age 12.
Aronberg pointed out the county’s thriving agricultural and tourism industries, combined with the diverse demographic, create an environment vulnerable to human trafficking. He then focused on identifying the signs.
Look out for those who travel frequently or use only prepaid phones. Individuals who avoid eye contact and respond with scripted or rehearsed answers to questions and are unusually fearful when law enforcement is around are all indicators that there could be a problem.
“It’s the worker at the nail salon who is not allowed to handle the cash and won’t look you in the eye. It’s the high school girl who shows up with an older boyfriend one day and starts wearing expensive jewelry and has his name tattooed on her eyelids. That’s the reality of modern-day slavery — it’s a barcode tattooed on a young girl’s neck,” Aronberg said.
He also noted that most human trafficking cases are never reported or investigated. Sometimes this is due to language or cultural barriers, or a fear of being deported.
Yet Aronberg’s dedication to the problem remains steadfast.
“As part of the job, you get to choose your own priorities. The governor is not my boss; the attorney general is not my boss. You’re my boss, the people of Palm Beach County,” he said.
For more information on human trafficking, Aronberg shared contact information for a variety of resources. These include the Florida Abuse Hotline (800-96-ABUSE), the Human Trafficking Coalition of the Palm Beaches (www.htcpb.org), the Florida Coalition Against Human Trafficking (www.stophumantrafficking.org), and the PBSO’s e-mail email@example.com and phone number (561) 688-3000.
The luncheon was sponsored by Palms West Hospital and the Children’s Hospital at Palms West. The sponsor’s guest speaker was Dr. Judith Merchant, a diagnostic radiologist and breast-imaging specialist who recently came to the area from Kentucky.
A recipient of the 2016 Patient’s Choice Award and third-degree black belt in taekwondo, Merchant was attracted to the area for many reasons, including the equestrian community, as she is also an avid horsewoman with an interest in dressage. “It was difficult to leave, but while I was here, and when I spoke with the people at Palms West Hospital, I really felt like these people were very dedicated. They really hold a level of excellence that I wanted to be a part of,” Merchant said.
She believes that this area has a need for her services as a breast-imaging specialist. “I hope to bring that expertise to the community, and education is really important to me,” Merchant said. “It’s a really beautiful place to be. It’s a comforting place, and I’m really happy to be here. My door is always open.”
For more information about the Wellington Chamber of Commerce and its events, visit www.wellingtonchamber.com. To attend future chamber luncheons, guests must RSVP no later than the Friday prior to the event.