Disney asked to take public stand on human-trafficking law
Human-trafficking victims, their advocates call on Disney to take public stand on proposed law
Sex trafficking survivors spoke tearfully of betrayal by Florida lawmakers Friday as bills that would have allowed the hotel industry to be sued for willfully ignoring the problem came to a puzzling halt this week, and victim advocates called on Disney to take a stand on the issue.
“We want to ask … Disney in particular [for] a definitive position,” said Tomas Lares, founder and executive director of the nonprofit anti-trafficking group Florida Abolitionist. “We feel that they owe it to our survivors to publicly say whether they want this [bill] to be voted on.”
Walt Disney Parks and Resorts has two lobbyists registered on the legislation but neither has testified for or against it. In fact, no one has testified against the bills in either chamber of the Legislature, but the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association has issued public statements saying its members would face “unfounded” lawsuits if the law passes.
“Human traffickers often rely on legitimate businesses to sustain their operations and, unfortunately, hotels and lodging are one of the various venues that traffickers use to exploit their victims,” said spokeswoman Erin Hellkamp Power. “The Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association is deeply committed to working with stakeholders and lawmakers to ensure the safety and security of our hotel employees and guests.”
Power said there were other ways to do that — including training of employees — short of a new law.
Disney offered no direct response to the question but referred inquiries to the lodging association, of which Disney is a member.
The legislation — House Bill 167 and Senate Bill 1044 — would hold business owners liable if they “knowingly or in willfull blindness” facilitate trafficking crimes. Lares and others have said hotels and motels are the biggest targets since the bulk of sex trafficking crimes take place on their properties.
Several survivors of trafficking called on lawmakers “to do the right thing.”
“I was sold out of a hotel in Apopka” as a child, said Savannah Parvu, now 31. “My trafficker would leave me there. He would arrange for the staff to let [men paying for sex] in the room. … They never asked if I needed help. They didn’t ask if I wanted to let the men come in. … I had been beaten, bloody, bruised, walking down the hall at 12 years old, and nobody asked if I needed anything.” -Savannah Parvu, Central Florida trafficking survivor
If there had been a law holding the hotel accountable, Parvu said, it might have saved her years of abuse.
“Because nobody helped me, I continued to be a victim for several years and have recently had to have a hysterectomy because of what was done to me,” she said. “And so I’ll never get to have kids.”
The legislation also allows businesses to protect themselves from lawsuits by providing training to their employees about the signs of trafficking and by adopting protocols for dealing with the problem. Victim advocates say responsible business owners have no reason to worry, but that has not persuaded opponents.
Ryan Banfill, communications director for the Florida Justice Association, formerly the Academy of Florida Trial Lawyers, said “powerful special interests have convinced lawmakers to halt all action” on the legislation.
“It’s shameful for lawmakers to let the whispers of corporations — who did not have the courage to raise their issues publicly — drown out the pleas for action from human trafficking survivors,” he said, though he provided no evidence to back his claim.
The House and Senate versions of the proposal appeared to be making progress until Thursday, when the Senate sponsor, Lauren Book, D-Plantation, asked that it be postponed. With about a week left in the session, advocates said the move threatens to kill the bill’s chances. They appealed to lawmakers to revive it immediately.
Several survivors said they met with Book Monday evening in Tallahassee and that she assured them she supported the bill, which she sponsored.
Attorney Lisa Haba, a former Seminole County prosecutor of trafficking crimes, said she accompanied the women and was stunned when Book later pulled the bill back from a vote.
“Sen. Book looked them in the eye. She hugged them. She told them she stood with them…. She promised to help them,” Haba said. “Sen. Book, I have a question for you: What changed?”
Book did not respond to a request for comment.
The sponsor of the House bill, Rep. Ross Spano, R-Riverview, could not be reached Friday, but supporters of the proposal said they expected it to pass that chamber.
Linsey Ruth, 35, who spent eight years of her childhood being victimized by traffickers, pleaded for lawmakers to reconsider.
“The courage that we have had to have to speak up — this is not an easy thing to do,” she said. “We relive it every time we speak it. We’re asking you to have courage. We’re asking you to stand beside us and to raise your voice in the same way we are so that we can end this.”
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March 3, 2018, 5:44am | Orlando