As the recently reelected Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) continues to demonize drag queens, trans kids, and queer people in general as threats to Florida’s children, a sex trafficking crisis amongst teens in the state is metastasizing under his care.
According to a stunning new report published in the South Florida Sun Sentinel Monday, Florida’s foster care system has for years proven to be a breeding ground for sex trafficking victims, placing vulnerable kids and teens directly in the path of drug use, sexual and physical violence and, often, death. More damning, though, is the revelation that Florida’s elected officials have long been well aware of the crisis and have taken little to no action to save the state’s most at-risk girls.
The Sentinel’s analysis of data from Florida’s Department of Children and Families (DCF) showed that when a girl enters the state’s welfare system, her chances of being sex trafficked increase. Already a “top venue” for trafficking due to high volume of tourists and hotels, Florida has seen alarming increases in reports of child sex trafficking to the Florida Abuse Hotline, with 3,182 reports last year alone. Despite the increased risk, as of last month, the Sentinel reports there are just 18 family foster homes approved to care for trafficking victims in the entire state, and documents reviewed by the Sentinel show the state has for years known that sex traffickers specifically target underaged girls within its care.
Jayden Alexis Frisbee, the Sentinel reported, is one of the girls lost to Florida’s welfare system. She died last year at the age of 16 after she was shuffled between 16 different group foster homes within the span of a year and a half, only to repeatedly run away and fall prey to sex traffickers in the area. After she was beaten, abused, and drugged, she died in a Jacksonville Studio 6 motel bathroom. She had become the state’s responsibility but, following her death, officials took over a month to identify her body.
The insufficient care and concern well documented across the DCF is in part due to the Florida legislature’s 1998 decision to privatize the foster care system. Each county works with a private contractor who then hires subcontractors to run group homes. This vote, the Sentinel explains, took place after years of negative headlines detailing “neglected, abused or missing children” within the foster care system caused outrage amongst the public. The transfer of power to private organizations, then, was a means of “deflect[ing] blame away from the state.”
Beyond ignoring warning signs and telling statistics about the increasing number of teen girls succumbing to nearby sex traffickers, the Sentinel also found that the DCF had exploited a loophole to continue sending teen girls to group homes, often in unsafe areas where traffickers “shark” the block, lying in wait for girls to take a trip down the street to a convenience store. Young people who had been sexually exploited or abused in the past were even more likely to run away from group homes, increasing their chances of becoming trafficking victims. Of the 355 foster kids the Sentinel studied, 82% ran away while under the state’s care. That likelihood increased at group homes.
Meanwhile, DeSantis continues to raise moral panic about drag queens teaching children sexual deviance, or whatever bullshit they’re calling it these days. He’s busy sending migrants, including children, to Martha’s Vineyard, and overseeing a public school system in which posters of Black heroes, like Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King Jr., are being forcibly removed from classrooms. Under his watch, a newly appointed state Board of Education council has been staffed with right-wing mothers ecstatic about upholding DeSantis’ “curriculum transparency” agenda, which includes a war against trans student athletes and a ban on gender-affirming therapies and surgeries for minors.
With an opportunity to make good on a promise parroted to voters for years, DeSantis and co. looked the other way, leaving a staggering number of girls in foster care to succumb to a fate both predictable and avoidable.