ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — ABC Action News was the first to get an inside look at the work being done at the University of South Florida's new human trafficking research lab, pulling together data to show where the crime is happening in Florida and how to end it.
The I-Team has revealed the realities of sex trafficking across the Tampa Bay area and met with professors, students and lawmakers to show what USF is doing to help victims.
+I-TEAM | Human Trafficking coverage
Walking into the USF Trafficking in Persons - Risk to Resilience Lab or "TIP" lab, case files are stacked, laptops are open and students are working to pinpoint pathways into sex trafficking.
“A lot of times it’s a very close family member that gets people involved in trafficking, which was very shocking to me, very sad, but that's more the reality of it," Sarah Gardy, a graduate student studying psychology said.
Projects students are working on include tracking any similarities in backgrounds.
“I’m going through and looking at a lot of different variables, anything that involves talking about when they got involved in the sex industry, drug use, if they are in foster care," Gardy said.
Emily Walker, a graduate student studying criminology, told the I-Team, "There are millions of people around the world that are affected by this and we don’t know a lot. So really it’s just trying to help provide that information.”
The research lab launched in September, with criminology professor Joan Reid leading the team.
“Interviewing victims as a mental health counselor is really where I first came across trafficking," Reid said.
Reid was a rape crisis counselor for Pinellas County in 2003.
“Sometimes it was just desperation, they had run away and they needed a place to stay, and so they would be forced to prostitute in order to have a place to sleep. Other times it was boyfriends who — or girlfriends even, who had kind of recruited them," Reid said. "I went back and got my PhD in criminology in order to research human trafficking in Florida. And so for the last 15 years, that’s been my primary work.”
Reid said there is a real lack of data when it comes to specifics on human trafficking in Florida, beyond the statistic repeated from the National Human Trafficking Hotline.
"Right now, the data that we use to say, ‘Florida is the third — is ranked third in human trafficking’ — that’s from the National Human Trafficking Hotline data. That is very limited," Reid said.
That just means the number of calls to the hotline.
“How big is the problem? The scope of the problem? Much less where it is. Is it rural? Is it urban?”
Reid wants specific to have on the ground data, city by city, neighborhood by neighborhood, to make sense of information different departments are already compiling on their own.
The lab intends to pull together data from the Florida Department of Health, Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, Florida Department of Children and Families, and Florida Department of Law Enforcement, departments Reid said are operating in silos.
The goal is the same — to help victims leave a life of being bought, sold, abused and exploited.
“For me, as an engineer, I like to see — did this impact? Did this make a difference? And if not, let’s go a different direction," Republican State Rep. Jackie Toledo, of Tampa, told the I-Team.
A bill Toledo filed this session would dedicate more resources and funding to USF's human trafficking research lab and require law enforcement to turn over information, making the university a statewide hub for human trafficking data.
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"Is it 12-year-olds, 15, girls, boys, gender, race, ethnicity, things like that to help identify potential victims," Toledo said. "It starts at really young ages. They start to groom them. And now, with social media, they’re finding these vulnerable children and really exploiting them.”
If you believe you are a victim of Human Trafficking or suspect an adult is a victim of human trafficking, please visit the National Human Trafficking Hotline, or call them at 1-888-373-7888. If you suspect a child is a victim, please call the Florida Abuse Hotline at 1-800-96-ABUSE.