RISE Court: The Seventeenth Circuit’s Specialized Division for Child Victims of Human Trafficking
By Beth C. Schwartz, Court Publications Writer
Under Florida law, human trafficking is defined as “transporting, soliciting, recruiting, harboring, providing, enticing, maintaining, or obtaining another person for the purpose of exploitation of that person.” Regarded as a form of modern-day slavery, human trafficking involves the use of “force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of sexual exploitation or forced labor” [section 787.06, Florida Statutes]. In the US, human trafficking crosses all social, ethnic, racial, and gender lines: traffickers prey on people of all ages, nationalities, socioeconomic levels, educational levels, and abilities, and its victims include undocumented immigrants, documented immigrants, and US citizens. According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, which maintains one of the most extensive data sets on human trafficking in the country, Florida ranks third (behind California and Texas) in the nation in reported human trafficking cases.
Various public and private entities in Florida, both local and statewide, have been working to raise awareness of and to support the victims of human trafficking. The judicial branch has also been playing an active role in addressing this multifaceted, complex crime: being uniquely positioned to convene and coordinate the stakeholder groups that address human trafficking-related issues that surface in the judicial process, courts can support the victims’ efforts to achieve justice and restoration. The Seventeenth Circuit’s RISE Court—an acronym for Restoring Independence, Strength, and Empowerment—is the judicial branch’s most recent effort.
RISE Court is a docket for providing specialized treatment exclusively to children who are known to be, or are suspected of being, victims of human trafficking. (Note: because minors cannot consent to commercial sex, under federal and Florida law, anyone under the age of 18 who is involved in a commercial sex act is considered a victim of sex trafficking, regardless of the presence of force, fraud, or coercion.) In part inspired by the Eleventh Circuit’s GRACE Court, which launched in July 2016, RISE Court is situated within the dependency and delinquency divisions of the circuit’s Unified Family Court. Chief Judge Jack Tuter established the docket by administrative order in June of this year, and he designated Judge Stacy Ross—who conceptualized RISE Court with the help of Judge Hope Bristol and Judge Stacey Schulman—as the presiding judge. RISE Court, which had its first session on August 13, is starting out small, at least initially: it’s scheduled to convene every other Tuesday, with its chief priorities being mental health and medical care for the children and reintegrating them into the school system.
RISE Court was created in response to the alarming increase in human trafficking reports—particularly the growth in the number of cases involving minors—across the globe. This trend has been documented in the US and in Florida, as well. In its 2018 Global Report on Trafficking in Persons, for instance, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime details “the rise in the number of reported victims” around the world. In the US, the Florida Department of Health relays that “Estimates in the US exceed 14,500 – 17,500 [human trafficking victims] annually”; of these, “80 percent are women and children,” the department states, noting that “half of all trafficking victims [are] under the age of 18.” And in Florida, the Department of Children and Families affirms that, “From SFY 2013‐14 to SFY 2017‐18, there was a 147.7% increase in reports to the hotline for human trafficking maltreatments,” with Broward and Miami-Dade counties having the highest number of human trafficking reports (Annual Human Trafficking Report 2017-2018); especially in the last three years, Broward has seen a significant increase in the number of reported cases—including a hike in the number of cases involving minors (Broward Human Trafficking Coalition).
In the Seventeenth Circuit, dependency division judges are now responsible for determining whether a child’s case is eligible for RISE Court, and if the child qualifies, additional court proceedings are being assigned to Judge Ross. She describes RISE Court as “an exercise in case management,” explaining that if a family case involving a young human trafficking victim is currently assigned to Judge Schulman, for instance, that case will remain with Judge Schulman. However, Judge Ross will begin seeing the child separately to assess what services are necessary, how services are being administered, and what additional needs should be addressed. Meanwhile, Judge Schulman will continue to address the rest of the family’s needs, handling judicial reviews, permanency reviews, and the like. Through this arrangement, Judge Ross will be able to devote her judicial time exclusively to the child victim.
In addition to good case management practices, to be truly effective, RISE Court requires the participation of and communication among numerous community partners. The collaborative approach the Seventeenth has developed includes the Attorney General’s Office in Broward County, the circuit’s Attorneys ad Litem and Guardian ad Litem programs, the Broward County Clerk of Courts Office, the Department of Children and Families, community-based care providers like the Citrus Helping Adolescents Negatively Impacted by Commercial Exploitation Program and ChildNet, and the case managers at the Seventeenth. These “will all be key stakeholders to ensure the success of RISE Court,” say Judges Ross and Schulman.
“The focus of RISE Court is the child and the child’s unique needs,” Judge Ross stresses,” adding, “Together, we will provide the specialized treatment and wrap-around services that these identified, child-victims so desperately deserve. These children have experienced significant trauma in their lives; however, quite often, they are amazingly strong and resilient. This incredible resiliency is what inspires me and gives me such a passion for what I do. I believe that everyone working in RISE Court shares this same passion, and as a team, we will make a real difference in the lives of these children.”
(posted September 2019)