BayCare Supports U.S. Marshals' Operation SEMINOLE SABER, Ensuring Care for Recovered Children

May 02, 2024
A school-aged young blonde girl hugs a cream teddy bear while a dark-haired female clinician smiles at her from behind a workstation.


In a multi-agency collaborative effort to combat child trafficking and protect at-risk youth, the U.S. Marshals Service recently concluded a five-week operation named "Operation Seminole Saber" in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, successfully recovering 27 children. 

Led by Deputy U.S. Marshal Mario Price, the task force's primary focus was to recover critically at-risk children, many of whom had been reported missing from abusive family situations or were connected to dangerous individuals. These children often lack plans or resources when they leave home and are exposed to significant risks. 

Price stressed that upon rescue, the priority was to ensure the children's well-being and safety. To aid the operation, a team of health professionals from BayCare's St. Joseph’s Women’s Hospital created a recovery hub, where officers brought children for temporary refuge before they were placed in the care of child welfare agencies or the Department of Juvenile Justice.  

“Many recovered youth have significant physical ailments, mental illness and histories of substance misuse,” he said. “These children were also restricted by limited or no access to health care. Partnering with BayCare filled these critical gaps ensuring recovered kids had the medical care they desperately needed.” 

The operation was executed in collaboration with various agencies and organizations, including the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE), Tampa and St. Petersburg Police Departments, the United States Attorney's Office, Florida Department of Children & Families, More Too Life and Redefining Refuge. 

Tracey Kaly, director of clinical operations at BayCare Behavioral Health, said BayCare is the only health care system in the Tampa Bay area equipped for this initiative since the request was for a pediatric hospital partner that operates in both Pinellas and Hillsborough. “BayCare welcomed the opportunity to share our compassionate care with this vulnerable group of children and to be part of such important work,” Kaly said.  

Recognizing the importance of preparation and expertise, the team took proactive steps to equip its members with the skills and knowledge to handle the unique challenges of this operation. Approximately 75 individuals, spanning various departments including security, emergency departments, leadership, behavioral health, mobile medical, pediatric and psychiatry residents, nursing, and physicians, underwent specialized training on human trafficking. This comprehensive training, conducted by both survivor and professional trainers, aimed to expand BayCare's expertise and provide mission-specific guidance on working with commercially sexually exploited children. 

Each child was welcomed into a private room adorned with comforting decor, including colorful sheets, butterfly decals, and a welcome basket filled with snacks and personal hygiene items. This nurturing environment was essential for stabilizing severely traumatized children and providing them with the care and support they desperately needed. With a focus on privacy, dignity, and respect, children were greeted by security at a private entrance and offered essential services such as showers, clean bedding, and meals tailored to their preferences. Medical screenings for physical and behavioral health needs were conducted, with a keen emphasis on creating a positive healthcare experience for the children. 

Liana Dean, team lead for BayCare’s Community Health Activation Team and chair of the Pasco County Commission on Human Trafficking, served as the health system’s liaison between law enforcement and the Department of Children and Families. 

“BayCare’s role in this operation was crucial as the recovery hub met not only the children’s immediate basic needs but it also provided a sense of safety, comfort, and peace that many of them have not experienced,” Dean said. “Children who are trafficked are often closely bonded to their traffickers and without proper stabilization post recovery, many will return to their trafficking situations. BayCare created an environment where these children could see for themselves that help is available, and that people do genuinely care about them. This trauma competent setting prompted several trafficked youths to make disclosures about their health care needs and to share leads with law enforcement.” 

Price said BayCare’s support played a crucial role in the recovery effort. “We gave them this very nebulous concept – this is a law enforcement initiative, but we need health care support,” Price said. “The team at BayCare made it happen.”  

West Central Florida's largest provider of pediatric and behavioral health services, BayCare provided a dedicated wing where children received health and behavioral screenings that helped identify concerns. “BayCare provided medical services tailored to the needs of recovered youth,” Price said. “The work of BayCare in conjunction with our partner social service agencies and non-governmental organizations was instrumental to the operation’s success. The United States Marshals Service could not have pulled this off without them.” 

Kaly emphasized the importance of providing a supportive environment where children can make their own choices and receive the care they need. “Oftentimes, these kids have been in and out of health care situations, not being able to talk or consent to what they want or who they’re with and what they’re told to say” she said. “So, we want this to be a space where they can make their own choices.” 

She noted the varied needs of the children, saying, “Sometimes they just want to talk, and we start a dialogue, ‘Hey, you’ve been through a lot, would you like to talk about what’s going on? Can we help you in the moment right now?' Sometimes they just want to go to sleep and not to talk to anyone, and that’s okay, too,” Kaly said. 

Some of the youth brought to the hospital reported physical symptoms consistent with abuse they experienced while being trafficked. “Many of the children had not eaten a substantial meal in some time and all were hungry,” Dean added. “Many slept for hours upon eating a warm meal. Most were willing to participate in the health and behavioral health screenings offered to them, which revealed issues that required further testing, medication, and in one case, hospital admission.”  

BayCare worked closely with Redefining Refuge, a local anti-trafficking organization that serves minor youth victims of domestic sex trafficking. According to Dean, the Redefining Refuge staff already knew many of the recovered children, and provided insightful information on how staff could best work with each child.  

“One of our goals was to create a positive experience with health care for the children,” Kaly added. “Of the 27 children recovered, many were verified victims of human trafficking. BayCare’s trauma-competent setting prompted several trafficked youths to make disclosures about their health care needs and to share leads with law enforcement.  

The U.S. Attorney’s Office and the U.S. Marshal’s Service both voiced that they would like to replicate BayCare’s role with other health care systems as part of future operations in other areas of the state. 

Dean noted the importance of continued efforts, and replication of programs like this one. Florida has consistently ranked third in the nation for the number of reported cases of human trafficking made to the National Human Trafficking Hotline,” she said. “Research tells us that up to 88% of survivors of trafficking reported that they had contact with a health care system while trafficked. While no single organization can end trafficking in our community, through cross sector collaboration we strive to eradicate this horrible crime from our community. Health care systems play a such a pivotal role in identifying and providing care to this population. In many cases, contact with a health care provider can be the only opportunity that exists to for trafficking victims to seek help.”  

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