ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. — Investigators now say a 16-year-old girl who was found shot to death Monday in Pine Hills is linked to a human trafficking investigation.
Deputies say De’Shayla Ferguson had been missing for the past two months before she was found murdered.
According to the Florida Department of Children and Families, Ferguson was expected in court on as part of a human trafficking investigation but left after becoming “argumentative with staff” and wasn’t seen again.
Brenda Cloud is a Case Manager at Samaritan Village in Orlando. They offer shelter and support to survivors of human trafficking.
Cloud says the problem is much more prevalent in Central Florida than most people would like to believe.
“It is a huge issue,” Cloud said. “This does happen in other countries, all over the world, but it is also a huge problem right here in Central Florida.”
While sex trafficking is a known problem, Cloud says a number of the people she’s worked with have survived labor trafficking. In that situation, the victim works while someone else collects their earnings.
That’s why Cloud says it’s important for people to develop a clear understanding of how trafficking really looks.
“A lot of people think of trafficking as being snatched or kidnapped,” Cloud said. “Almost always, if someone is trafficked, it’s by someone who they know, someone who has taken the time to invest in them, to form a relationship with them.”
Cloud says kids are often targets as well. Data shows they’re being introduced to trafficking as young as 12 to 13 years of age, sometimes through other kids at school.
“A lot of times, they will present as a romantic interest, but it could be someone who is just presenting as a really good girlfriend, someone to hang out with, do something with, things like that,” Cloud said. “They are master manipulators, traffickers.”
Cloud says traffickers typically target people from troubled backgrounds or foster care.
“They come in like a knight in shining armor a lot of times. If you have a need, they will meet that need,” Cloud said.
According to Cloud, the danger can sometimes be very close to home.
“Just because your kid is home Monday through Friday doesn’t mean they’re not being trafficked or something isn’t happening on the weekends,” Cloud said. “Strangers, as we can see, these people online in different areas, they’re not afraid to come into your child’s world.”
When it comes to the warning signs, Cloud says to look for big changes, like in your child’s friend groups, and pay attention to what they’re wearing.
“If your child is coming home with a new purse and shoes, things you did not purchase, and they don’t have a job and a means to maintain these things, that’s something you want to check in to,” Cloud said.
She adds that if you suspect someone is being trafficked, it’s important not to confront them alone as it could put them in danger.
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