A Florida House bill that looks to crack down on human trafficking may be getting some changes before its next committee stop. Representative Heather Fitzenhagen’s bill passed the House Appropriations Committee Tuesday.
Savannah Parvu is a survivor who says she is in support of the House bill.
“I am a survivor of human trafficking. I grew up in Central Florida and started being trafficked by my mother,” Parvu said. “When I was 12, I started being sold out of hotels in Central Florida. And the staff at the hotels were aware of what was happening and actually assisted my trafficker.”
Under the bill, a training program would be developed for hotels, other public lodging businesses, and massage parlors, to detect human trafficking so it can be stopped. It also creates a new four-hour training course for police officers as part of their basic recruitment. If officers fail to complete it, they would not be able to join the department. But one provision in the bill has some lawmakers and advocates raising eyebrows, including Democratic Representative Richard Stark.
“It basically says ‘provided immunity from liability for harm resulting from a massage or public lodging establishment employee’s failure to prevent, detect or report suspected human trafficking,’” Stark said. “And I remember that wasn’t on the original bill. So, I’d like to know why we add that in there.”
The section Stark is referencing would allow hotels and massage parlors to avoid lawsuits even when employees don’t take action.
“It’s like giving hotels immunity,” he added.
Fitzenhagen says that was an effort to get the measure closer to the companion bill currently moving through the Senate.
“That is something that was placed in the bill as a parallel to the Senate version of the bill, but I am equally concerned about providing immunity,” Fitzenhagen said. “I, too, am not trying to have a new cause of action, but I’d rather have the existing common law actions and anything that would be applicable to this type of egregious behavior to remain in place.”
But, Fitzenhagen says she wants to make a change.
“I’m hoping that at the next stop I will be able to make an adjustment and amend that section of the bill,” Fitzenhagen said.
The Fort Myers Republican says there could be other changes on the horizon for her bill.
“It is my intent to adjust the bill to take out the immunity provisions. I would also like to make a few changes potentially to the massage (parlor) section, to make sure that that’s clear that there are many reputable massage organizations that would like to see some changes and strengthening in that area,” Fitzenhagen said. “And, potentially, to add restaurants in if that’s possible, because that’s where a lot of the recruitment goes on in human trafficking.”
The specifics of what those changes might look like are unclear, as Fitzenhagen wasn’t available for an interview following Tuesday’s committee meeting.
National Organization for Women lobbyist Barbara Devane says her organization doesn’t support the bill for two reasons. One is the issue of potential immunity for businesses.
“These hotels, restaurants and other establishments – once they go through the training, they are immune from prosecution,” DeVane said following Tuesday’s committee meeting. “No cause of action against them ever, for allowing human trafficking in their hotel, restaurant etcetera, their establishment.”
The other reason DeVane opposes the bill is a provision in the Senate version that creates a registry of those convicted of engaging in the exchange of sex for money.
“These women who are sex workers, prostitutes, would also wind up on the registry,” DeVane said. “And we would be criminalizing women.”
DeVane says she was disappointed last year when what she calls the “best human trafficking bill ever” was killed by its sponsor, Lauren Book, at its very last committee stop. Book is sponsoring the bill that’s moving through the Senate now.
Fitzenhagen’s House bill also creates a support organization under the department of legal affairs that would assist the statewide council on human trafficking chaired by Attorney General Ashley Moody. The bill will next head to the House Judiciary Committee.