‘TYLA Court’ helps human trafficking survivors with criminal records

“Being restored, that’s what it feels like,” said Sarasota human trafficking survivor Kimberly Weller, whose felony charges were dismissed through the TYLA program.

SARASOTA, Fla. — We are now in the middle of National Human Trafficking Awareness Month, and right now, Florida is one of the top three states for sex trafficking. 

A woman in Sarasota is sharing her story of survival, saying she made it out of a living nightmare thanks to the TYLA Court program. 

“I want to be clear that it wasn’t the addiction. It was the childhood sexual abuse that started this root that grew into this big, ugly monster,” human trafficking survivor Kimberly Weller said.

Weller grew up in Sarasota and says her childhood abuse led her to addiction. 

“I found myself very heavily addicted. I entered into sex work voluntarily until I met a man who became my trafficker,” she said.

For two years, she was trafficked in her hometown of Sarasota. 

“In downtown Sarasota. I was on North 41, within two blocks of the high school that I graduated from with honors,” Weller said.

Ironically, it was an arrest and felony charge of prostitution that led Weller to a program that would change her life for the better — TYLA Courts.

RELATED: Human trafficking survivor is dedicated to helping other women across Tampa Bay

RELATED: Tampa General Hospital becomes first in Florida to train staff to recognize signs of human trafficking

Nicole Dolack worked for the non-profit Selah Freedom and is an outreach coordinator for TYLA Court.

“A court diversion program gives them the opportunity for treatment, instead of typical jail or prison for the crimes that they have committed,” Dolack said.

TYLA Court stands for “turn your life around” and was founded by Selah Freedom, Sarasota Police, and the State Attorney’s Office in 2013. It is now in effect in Sarasota and Manatee counties. 

It connects trafficking survivors with lawyers, a judge, and a plan to get charges reduced or dismissed. 

“I think everyone started to realize that there’s a lot of force criminality while being inside that lifestyle,” Dolack said. “So it’s not just prostitution charges. There are petty theft charges. There are possession charges of either drugs or paraphernalia. There’s any type of forced criminality that a trafficker may have forced some of these clients into committing.” 

Cleared of criminal charges, survivors like Kimberly Weller get a chance at a fresh start. 

Weller said, “To know that I’m not a convicted felon anymore is kind of just reaffirming that good part of me that’s inside there, that never would have chosen to do those things if I hadn’t been living in my trauma.” 

Weller said she’s now thriving and at peace.

“Being restored, that’s what it feels like,” Weller said. “It feels like someone found you broken on the floor and put you back together with gold.” 

Experts say the most important thing you can do is if you see something, say something. You can call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 888-373-7888.

Selah Freedom’s website also has a lot of great resources. Click here to learn more.

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