Human trafficking is a very real problem, and it's "definitely" going on in the Keys, according to Tyson Elliott, human trafficking coordinator for the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice.
Elliott, a former sex crimes detective, was in Key West this week for a talk Wednesday night at the Metropolitan Community Church, and a three-hour training session hosted by Wesley House Family Services on Thursday.
At Wednesday's talk, Elliott said he didn't have hard data relating to incidents of human trafficking in Monroe County, but that "as easy as it is to traffic someone, it's definitely going on around here ... . I would say that you have every form of human trafficking in the Keys."
Elliott's talk was sponsored by the Keys Coalition Against Human Trafficking, an organization founded by Key Wester Tim Gratz in 2011 to raise awareness about the issue.
Elliott stressed the need to train law enforcement officials and health workers to identify and assist the human trafficking victims among the "ballpark 250,000 kids reported missing every year."
He decried, however, the fact that police academies statewide only provide a four-to-six hour block devoted to the subject during the average six-month training course to become a law enforcement officer.
"It's very difficult to get cops or the state attorney to take notice (of the issue)," he said, "unless you have a high-level in."
"It takes time for [awareness] to get through the police departments."
Monroe County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Becky Herrin said that while her agency takes crimes involving human trafficking seriously, it's just not as much of a problem here as in other parts of the country.
"We've had cases, and we've investigated them and closed them," Herrin said. "We would never refuse to investigate a crime that occurs in this county, particularly not one that is that serious. We certainly take the crime of human trafficking seriously, and the sheriff is always willing to meet with anyone who has concerns about crimes in the county."
Coalition Chairwoman Connie Gilbert said the organization's goal is to "get some training to the professionals who may recognize the signs and get some help to these people. As Tyson said, a lot of these kids are still in school."
The coalition has held several rallies since its foundation, including one at Key West High School that featured the viewing of a George Clooney-produced documentary titled "Playground," which deals with the issue of child sex trafficking.
The organization's annual meeting will be held April 28 in Marathon.
Gilbert said the group is also planning a fundraising drive.
"We don't want public funds, and we're not looking to compete with other causes," Gilbert said.
"Our dues are quite modest. We're just reaching out to anybody who would like to help us keep human trafficking out of Monroe County."
For more information, visit www.keyscoalition.com.