Friday, November 29, 2013

Successful Bench Bar Conference Punctuated By Human Trafficking Survivor’s Harrowing Account Of Abuse

By John F. Kynes

The theme for the Hillsborough County Bar Association’s 17th Annual Bench Bar Conference held in November at the Hilton in downtown Tampa was “Stand Up For Justice.”  No one did a better job communicating that message than the courageous guest speaker at the event’s membership luncheon.

The speaker, a woman who did not provide her name because of personal safety concerns, shared her harrowing story of abuse as a survivor of human trafficking, and she encouraged the more than 450 HCBA members in attendance to become victim advocates.

Speaking publicly about her terrible ordeal for the first time, the woman described growing up in the Tampa Bay area in a “stable, loving family.”  She said she enjoyed ballet, attended the University of South Florida for a time, and eventually became a single mother to a premature baby.

Trying to make ends meet, she worked nights as a bartender and at area nightclubs. Targeted by a local human trafficker, she was lured away from a nightclub under false pretenses and with the promise of making more money. She said she was then taken and held against her will in a local warehouse where she was repeatedly beaten and raped.  “I thought I was dead when I heard my trafficker and other men talk about what to do with my body,” she said.

After that, all her belongings were taken, and she was regularly “sold” to men for sex.  “I was the product,” she said.

Any time she resisted instructions, she was “punched and strangled,” she said.  Her trafficker also used psychological manipulation to control her, which she said was often more powerful than physical violence.

Eventually, she was able to escape and is now trying to make a better life for herself.  Incredibly, she is now attending law school and is encouraging others to assist trafficking victims.  “We need every single attorney and judge to be trained on the [trafficking] issue,” she told the crowd, which gave her an extended standing ovation after she completed her remarks.

Jenay Iurato, a volunteer attorney with the West Florida Center for Trafficking Advocacy, provided some grim statistics about human trafficking before she introduced the trafficking survivor.  Florida ranks third in the country in the incidence of human trafficking, and overall the crime is estimated to be a $32 billion dollar industry, Iurato said.  Further, trafficking is the second-most common criminal act behind drug trafficking, she added.

“Human trafficking is alive and flourishing in the Tampa Bay area,” Iurato said.  “It’s modern-day slavery.”

Iurato encouraged those in attendance to get involved and help educate their colleagues and the public about the trafficking issue.  Iurato also highlighted a new statewide initiative championed by Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, “From Instant Message to Instant Nightmare,” to help parents protect children from sex trafficking.

However, she conceded there is much work to be done to help combat the problem.  “We need attorneys who are willing to invest in the restoration of survivors through time, relationships, and pro bono legal services,” Iurato said.


On another note, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn attended the membership luncheon and made a special presentation to U.S. District Judge Elizabeth A. Kovachevich.  Buckhorn presented the judge with a door with her name inscribed on it that came from her former courtroom in the historic federal courthouse.  The door was salvaged from the 108-year-old courthouse, which has been closed for 15 years and is being transformed into a boutique hotel.


Circuit Judges Caroline J. Tesche and Samantha L. Ward were this year’s Bench Bar Conference co-chairs.  Both judges worked for months with other dedicated committee members, HCBA CLE Director Amanda Uliano, and other staff planning the conference.

“We firmly believe that our jurisdiction is unique; our Bench and Bar truly exemplify the best in the practice of law, and our annual conference grows in prominence and tradition each year,” Tesche said.

There were eight CLE breakout sessions in the morning that focused on a wide range of topics, as well as a morning plenary session that focused on key technology issues. In the afternoon, there were four more CLE breakout sessions, each with a “View Toward the Bench,” focusing on issues important to litigants.  Plus, there were two afternoon plenary sessions, including a panel discussion focusing on pro bono work that was moderated by Pulitzer prize-winning columnist Daniel Ruth.

At the end of the day, more than 400 HCBA members enjoyed the camaraderie provided at the annual Judicial Reception.

Special thanks to the many generous sponsors that helped make this year’s Bench Bar Conference possible, and especially the Diamond Sponsor, Steve Yerrid and The Yerrid Law Firm.

See you around the Chet.