ST. PETERSBURG, Fla — Research at the University of South Florida conducted 96 interviews and focus groups with crisis centers, women's shelters and law enforcement entities about what would help them most in handling sex trafficking cases.
The most common answer: more data.
While there are dozens of organizations that keep their own data on sex trafficking across the state of Florida, there is not one centralized resource for the state. This is where USF's new "Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Risk to Resilience Lab" comes in.
The research lab is working on nearly a dozen projects. One of the biggest is creating a unified human trafficking database. Florida currently ranks third in the nation based on the number of human trafficking hotline reports.
“We realized there was a much larger group of youth who were vulnerable to this than previously understood,” Dr. Joan Reid said, a criminology professor whose research focuses on child sex trafficking in Florida and is director of the TIP lab.
"I came up with the conclusion that any kid is vulnerable," Reid said. "Given the right situation, meeting the right trafficker, any person, any child can be manipulated into this."
Reid and her team of USF professors and grad students are building a statewide database for human trafficking. The database would allow entities to upload their reports. That data could then be analyzed to find trends and pinpoint them in specific communities or neighborhoods.
"Let's say there is a prevention campaign, right? We can see, did it work? Was there a change? Has it been effective? We might find areas where there is no human trafficking, and we can say, what are they doing right? Can we replicate that in other places? Or if we find there is a true hot spot, we can focus more on our prevention campaigns," Reid said. "It's just so effective if you have information."
Current statewide data on human trafficking in Florida comes from the national human trafficking hotline. That data is based on the number of calls received from our state.
Through a unified human trafficking database, statistics from the state health department, Florida Department of Children and Families, Florida Department of Juvenile Justice and Florida Department of Law Enforcement would be compiled in one place.
Reid has been researching human trafficking in Florida since 2008. She has previously worked as a rape crisis counselor for Pinellas County, a therapist at a juvenile justice residential facility and at the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay.
"They would tell me stories about being sold for sex," Reid said in recounting her time working as a rape crisis counselor. "So I started to realize this is happening in my own neighborhood...I would meet kids who had been trafficked even by their own parents. Those are the people that keep me passionate."
There is a bill in the legislature now to recognize the TIP Lab as the state's human trafficking data depository. This would give law enforcement offices across the state one centralized place to upload their data.
Another project underway in the TIP Risk to Resilience Lab is B.R.I.G.H.T. It stands for "bridging resource and information gaps in human trafficking." In interviews conducted over resources needed to aid in cases of human trafficking, it was an easier way to access resources that were highlighted.
The research lab has partnered with a Texas-based organization, United Against Human Trafficking, to implement a program they created. The system connects survivors to the resources they need, in real-time. Through B.R.I.G.H.T., an online, interactive database will allow survivors and case managers to see what resources are available nearby and to get in touch with local organizations through one centralized service, while simultaneously collecting data.
USF said the data collected will allow researchers in the TIP Lab to better identify the hidden victims of human trafficking, the types of services they seek, the types of services needed, the locations services are most needed and where the gaps in services lie.
If you or someone you know is a victim of human trafficking there is help. The National Human Trafficking Hotline operates a 24-hour hotline and can be reached by phone at 1-888-373-7888, by texting HELP to BeFree (233733), or by chat to talk about your needs, your options, and the resources they have available to help you. The Crisis Center of Tampa Bay encourages you to call 211 for resources surrounding human trafficking.