18-Year-Old Foster Runaway Charged with Sex Trafficking a Minor

January 11, 2023 Criminal Defense, Sex Crimes

An 18-year-old in Broward County has been arrested and charged with sex trafficking a minor to pay for food and shelter after the two ran away from their foster home.

This article will share the details from the case along with a recent and intensive investigation on human trafficking in Florida and how victims of human trafficking may be able to expunge their criminal records.

What was the Incident?

Broward Sheriff’s Office arrested Hannah Ellsworth, 18, after she allegedly arranged for a 13-year-old to engage in sex trafficking. According to the report, the two girls ran away from Broward County foster home Children’s Harbor in November 2021.

In the days following, Ellsworth arranged to have sex with several different men to pay for food and shelter. Only 17 at the time, Ellsworth tried to get the 13-year-old to participate in the sexual encounter.

At first, the younger girl refused to participate. The victim claimed this made Ellsworth angry, stating that she wouldn’t share any of the money unless she agreed to participate. The 13-year-old complied later that day.

The two girls got into an argument over Ellsworth refusing to pay the younger girl, who then ran away. Plantation Police found the victim three days later—she possessed a phone that had Snapchat videos showing her being sexually assaulted by Ellsworth.

In February 2022, authorities obtained a search warrant from a judge to review Ellsworth’s Snapchat account. The report indicated that Ellsworth’s phone revealed various images of her and the victim, along with a video of the girl being assaulted. The video was posted on Ellsworth’s Snapchat story and shared with several other users.

Ellsworth was arrested on January 2nd, 2023 and is facing charges of sex trafficking of a minor, lewd or lascivious battery, and promoting a sexual performance by a child. Ellsworth is currently being held in the North Broward Bureau, which is where inmates with mental health issues and special needs are housed.

Sex Trafficking in Florida

Sex trafficking has been considered a form of modern-day slavery by the Florida Legislature. Under Florida Statute section 787.06, any person who knowingly, or in reckless disregard to the facts, engages or attempts to engage in human trafficking—including benefiting financially by receiving anything of value from participation—can result in human trafficking charges.

The penalty for human trafficking in Florida is a first-degree felony. The penalties for a first-degree felony include up to a $10,000 fine and up to 30 years in prison. If the victim of sex trafficking is a minor (younger than 18), was considered mentally defective, or mentally incapacitated, then the defendant may be charged with a life felony. The penalties for a life felony in Florida include life imprisonment and up to a $15,000 fine.

An individual who is accused of first-time sex purchasing can be charged with a second-degree misdemeanor, under Florida Statute section 796.07. The penalties for a second-degree misdemeanor in Florida is up to a $500 fine and up to 60 days in jail. Second or subsequent charges will result in harsher penalties, ranging from a first-degree misdemeanor to a second-degree felony.

In January 2022, Florida lawmakers tried to pass HB 1439 “Human Trafficking Reduction Act.” The bill’s focus was on sex work, lewdness, public lodging, and human trafficking. Included in the proposed law were the following changes:

  • Public lodging establishments would be prohibited from offering hourly rentals for accommodation
  • Public lodging establishments would be required to see proof of identification from any guest looking for accommodation
  • Increased penalties for soliciting another person out for prostitution or other sex-related services
  • Human trafficking expunction of criminal history would not be applied to specified offenses
  • When determining the victim status in a human trafficking case, the new law would remove the requirement for a specific evidentiary standard in the absence of an official documentation
  • Create a statewide Data Repository for anonymous human trafficking

Despite the bill’s potential to make a drastic effort to stop human trafficking, the bill died in the Senate Returning Messages in March 2022. However, the bill was then substituted for Senate Bill No. 898.

The bill has been titled “Miya’s Law” in reference to the Miya Marcano case from September 2021. Under the substituted proposal, SB 898 focuses on lodging standards in both apartments and hotels. Landlords of apartment complexes will now require employees to undergo background screenings prior to being hired.

The law now revises what constitutes reasonable notice for dwelling units, and takes certain actions relating to employee background screenings and using the keys to dwelling units.

In addition, the bill made it so that public lodging operators like hotels and motels are prohibited from offering an hourly rate for accommodation. While the law provides an exception for late fees, the legislation hoped that this addition would help curtail human trafficking for commercial sexual activity that can take place in these lodging establishments.  

To find out more about Miya’s Law, you can read our story here.

Florida’s Issue with Child Welfare and Sex Trafficking

Florida’s Sun Sentinel published a four-part investigation series this year titled “Innocence Sold.” The investigation revolved around the child welfare system in Florida, and how it has often led vulnerable children into sex trafficking.

The report explained that children in foster care and trafficking victims often share the same vulnerabilities—such as a history of exploitation or abuse, instability at home, insufficient parenting, and emotional fragility, which can all create a dangerous mixture.

The year-long investigation exposed the complicity of Florida’s child welfare system towards underage sex trafficking by finding evidence in government records, state and federal lawsuits, research studies, and interviews with victims and family members.

The second part of the series mentioned 16-year-old sex trafficking victim Jayden Alexis Frisbee, who was found dead in a Studio 6 motel in Jacksonville. Jayden had been moved around 12 different foster homes in less than two years, due to the Florida Department of Children and Families interfering with home life.

The following are the results found from Sun Sentinel’s investigation:

  • The odds are higher for a minor to be sex trafficked if they have been taken in by Florida’s child welfare system.
  • Despite federal law discouraging the use of group homes for vulnerable girls, Florida has created a loophole to continue doing so. Teens at group homes have been preyed on by traffickers who are known to “shark” the nearby areas until a girl leaves the group home.
  • The rate of young people running away from foster homes is alarmingly higher if the kids have had a history of commercial sex exploitation, which only makes them more susceptible to future sex trafficking.
  • Once a minor runs away from the child welfare system or their group home, there is little effort in trying to find them—and there is nothing in Florida’s statutes that requires them to do so.

“They’re looking for girls who no one’s looking out for, and that is pretty much a description of girls in foster care,” said Joan Reid, an associate professor and researcher at the University of South Florida who’s worked on documenting the connections between foster care and child sex trafficking.

A separate part of the investigation discussed the dangers of Florida as a tourist state. With its packed hotels and theme parks, the state is a top venue for sex trafficking crimes. Over the last several years, child sex trafficking reports have increased their numbers to the Florida Abuse Hotline—reaching 3,182 in 2021, the highest amount Broward, Miami-Dade, and Orange County have seen.

In 1998, Florida Legislature voted to privatize the foster care system, which meant the children were left to the hands of private contractors. The main child welfare contractor in Broward and Palm Beach counties is ChildNet Inc.

ChildNet has been named the defendant in the Broward County lawsuit on behalf of a 12-year-old who was trafficked while in state care. Their subcontracted service, Children’s Harbor, has multiple programs including residential group care for siblings and pregnant and parenting girls and transitional independent living for young adults.

Prior to child welfare services becoming privatized, the Department of Children and Families (DCF) received criticism for cases involving neglected, abused, or missing children. Privatization resolve the problem but only deflected the blame away from the state.

However DCF deputy chief of staff, Mallory McManus, assured Sun Sentinel that Florida’s child welfare systems have, “made tremendous strides in reducing the number of children in group care.”

“It is not solely the fact that the child is in foster care that raises their vulnerability to become a victim of human trafficking—rather the abuse or neglect that led them into state’s care,” McManus wrote in an email.

Robert Latham, associate director of the Children & Youth Law Clinic at the University of Miami, says regardless of being run by private contractors or by DCF, the State’s foster care system has been failing children for years.

“They should get out of the business of trying to care for teenagers,” Latham said. “They’re horrible at it.”

Florida’s Expunction Statute for Human Trafficking Victims

Florida law has an expunction provided for victims of human trafficking. Titled the Human Trafficking Victim Expunction Statute under section 943.0583, the law helps to prevent victims of human trafficking from maintaining a criminal record.

In order for a person to be qualified for the expunction, they must have been a victim, or coerced at the direction of an operator, in a human trafficking scheme when the offense was committed.

This is helpful because victims of sex trafficking are often arrested for sex crimes such as prostitution. The human trafficking expunction allows victims to petition the court to have the eligible and qualified criminal episode removed from their record.

It is important to note that the Statute allowing for record expunction for human trafficking victims “does not confer any right to the expunction of a criminal history record, and any request for expunction of a criminal history record may be denied at the discretion of the court.

To find out more about State and Federal human trafficking legislation, read our informative page here.

Finding a Defense Attorney in Tallahassee, Florida

Sex crimes are harshly prosecuted in the state of Florida. This is especially true when a case involves potential human trafficking. If you or someone you know has been accused of a crime and need legal guidance, do not hesitate. It is imperative to reach out to a skilled defense attorney in your area.

Don Pumphrey and his team of attorneys have years of experience representing Florida citizens accused of a crime. We understand the stress and anxiety that a criminal charge can cause, and our team is here to help. We vow to work tirelessly on your case to build a strong defense. Contact Pumphrey Law Firm today for a free consultation at (850) 681-7777 or leave an online message on our website.

Written by Karissa Key

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