Redefining Refuge’s courageous battle against sex trafficking 

 Did you know that for many years, minor children were arrested for prostitution in the state of Florida despite being forced to engage in inappropriate and horrific behavior against their will? 

Redefining Refuge Founder and Executive Director Natasha Nascimento was outraged when she learned this and was determined to make a difference. In 2010, she organized a public awareness campaign designed to educate and, ultimately, influence state legislation. Fortunately, she succeeded. 

Changing Florida laws further demonstrated that there is a need for programs to help young sex trafficking victims, says Nascimento. 

This led her to oversee the development of a safe house program, which launched in 2012. Redefining Refuge’s Safe House program was the first of its kind in the Tampa Bay area. It provided care, and assistance, to girls in an undisclosed location between the ages of 12 and 17.  While the Safe House program was able to serve many young victims, it was limited by state law. Only girls of a certain age range could be cared for. 

Nascimento, understanding the ever-increasing need for programs for minors of all ages and genders, realized she could do much more if Redefining Refuge made its services mobile. In 2019, she decided to close the Safe House program and extend her organization’s services. Redefining Refuge would assist 93 victims in the first year, after making those changes. 

Redefining Refuge provides comprehensive care to the victims it serves. Services the organization offers include a variety of alternative therapies and mental health programs, the facilitation of medical care and non-medical needs, educational assistance, and the purchasing of groceries and back-to-school supplies, among others. 

There is a misconception that most children forced into the sex trafficking trade are crossing borders, Nascimento says. This could not be further from the truth. Frighteningly, 85% of trafficked children are community children, according to the National Human Trafficking Hotline. Even worse, most of these children are involved in familial sex trafficking and are sold in the trafficking market so that a parent, or guardian, with a substance abuse addiction can get their needs met, Nascimento says.  

In 2023, Redefining Refuge was able to serve 131 children through referrals. The prior year, they helped 142. As demonstrated by numbers alone, there is a concerning need for the organization’s services in the Tampa Bay area. The Redefining Refuge team has participated in missing child operations in collaboration with the United States Marshals Service, Florida Department of Children and Families, Children’s Network of Hillsborough and other organizations. According to a United States Marshals Service press release, 10 of Hillsborough County’s most endangered children were recovered because of their combined efforts. 

When speaking about her “why,” Nascimento defines Redefining Refuge’s mission in a profound, yet simple statement. “Kids need a hug, not handcuffs.” Sex trafficking is a serious human rights issue and children forced into the trafficking trade should have access to services, she elaborated. “One child is too many children being trafficked.”  

While Redefining Refuge has already helped so many children in need since its establishment, Nascimento has ambitious goals for its future. The organization is currently developing a community center, which will be a reliable resource and safe space for trafficked children. 

Additionally, Nascimento wants to influence more state legislation. Trafficked children are still frequently required to testify against their perpetrators in court. Not only can this make children relive horrible experiences but can be even more painful if a child is testifying against their parent or guardian, she explained. 

Nascimento and the Redefining Refuge team also want to educate others about how social media is being used to target children. Social media has presented a “big issue” for us, Nascimento says. More children are being exposed and social media is attracting the unwanted attention of pedophiles. 

Every day, Redefining Refuge is making a difference. Nascimento is adamant that the organization will continue to serve until the sex trafficking trade is fully eliminated. For the countless children who are being victimized, Redefining Refuge not only provides essential support but gives the gift of something irreplaceable. Hope. ♦

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