ORLANDO, Fla. — Survivors of human trafficking are trusting only 9 Investigates with concerns about a local safehouse.
They claim the programming they were promised at the Lifeboat Project, including therapy services, weren’t consistent, and they felt re-exploited for the nonprofit’s bottom line.
Channel 9 investigative reporter Karla Ray took those claims to Executive Director Jill Bolander Cohen. Lifeboat Project leaders say they take these claims very seriously, and they’re horrified to hear that survivors are coming forward with concerns. However, in Florida, the nonprofit and others like it don’t actually need to provide any programming at all, because there are no standards or regulation for adult human trafficking safehouses.
Channel 9 was there in 2020 when the Lifeboat Project opened a 12-unit quadplex specifically for human trafficking survivors; but now, some of the women who have lived there claim it’s not the haven they were promised.
“They just put you in a house and say, ‘Hey, I take care of her,’” one survivor said. “But they really don’t.”
All three wanted to remain anonymous.
“You should be grateful, because you have a roof over your head, with no rent, and food expenses paid for,” another survivor says of the sentiment toward her in the quadplex. “All those types of things were provided for me when I was in the streets, as well.”
All three have recently moved out, after they say they felt re-exploited.
“I didn’t care where I went,” a third survivor said. “I didn’t care if I was putting myself in a situation where I would be vulnerable again, to be labor trafficked, or worse. I didn’t care. I couldn’t take it anymore.”
The three women all claim they felt pressure to share their stories of their life under control of a trafficker in order to benefit Lifeboat’s bottom line.
“They were like, ‘Oh, well, you know, we’re struggling nonprofit, we need the money,’’” one said, who had been labor trafficked since she was a child. “I’m afraid of my trafficker. You’re not offering me any security. You just want me to go tell my story.”
They claim counseling paid for by Lifeboat was inconsistent, along with transportation to medical treatment and therapy sessions.
“Once I made that statement that I was not going to share my story, everything changed,” a sex trafficking survivor said.
We took those claims to the nonprofit’s executive director.
“I mean, this is a nightmare for me,” Jill Bolander Cohen said. “It really is, because I care for these people. I’ve dedicated my life to this.”
Jill Bolander Cohen denied pressuring any survivor to share their story in order to help fundraise, and said therapy is offered to everyone in the program, but no one can be forced to go.
“So why would a survivor claim that was not being provided to her?” Karla Ray asked.
“I really don’t know. I really don’t know,” Bolander Cohen said. “I mean, I’ve seen where sometimes they get upset and, you know, and they say, ‘I’m going to run to the media.’ Well, you can’t hold me hostage. We’re doing the best that we can.”
The organization’s most recent tax records show $244,000 was used to “provide awareness through seminars and speaking engagements,” along with “direct counseling and legal services and housing to victims.” But, Bolander Cohen said there’s not a set structure to Lifeboat’s programming, and under Florida law, none is required.
“Nobody polices any of the [safehouses] dealing with adults,” Bolander Cohen said.
Florida has no regulation or certification standards for adult human trafficking safehouses. Anyone can open one, and solicit public grants or donations. The Lifeboat Project has received grant money from Orange County, Seminole County, and the city of Orlando.
Bolander Cohen said she’d welcome the additional scrutiny and guidance.
“I think it’s long overdue, because there are people that I definitely know are revictimized,” Bolander Cohen said.
The survivors agree standards are needed, noting it would take out any guesswork about what they and the public should expect, and prevent anyone from feeling revictimized.
“There’s no accountability,” one survivor said. “Where does the accountability come from, to show that they’re actually doing what they say they’re doing, when they get the funds that they get?”
After we started asking questions about this issue, Attorney General Ashley Moody told us through a spokesperson that she plans to work on this issue with state lawmakers during this legislative session. “As a state, it is important that we provide human trafficking survivors the quality services they need to recover in a safe environment,” she said in a statement.
So far, no legislation has been filed.
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