USF joins community partners to strengthen anti-human trafficking efforts

The workshop brought together USF students and researchers, community advocates and law enforcement to brainstorm about best ways to unite efforts

For 16 years of her childhood Connie Rose endured incest, was exploited and sex trafficked – all at the hands of a serial sex offender who was her father.

“I was a daughter for rent,” said Rose, who was able to escape her father’s grasp only when she married her college sweetheart.  She says she is also “living proof that even from the most unimaginable circumstances there is resilience.”

Today, Rose, founder of Victims2Survivors and Connie Rose Consulting, has dedicated her life to empowering survivors and engaging the greater community in the fight again human trafficking.  She was among the panelists at a Jan. 26 workshop that brought USF students, faculty, and staff; community partners and advocates; law enforcement professionals; and survivors to the University of South Florida to discuss ways to strengthen anti-human trafficking efforts in the Tampa Bay area.

Connie Rose

“End Human Trafficking:  A Community Approach,” held in the USF Marshall Student Center, was presented by the USF College of Public Health Department of Global Health in collaboration with the Disaster and Humanitarian Relief Student Collaborative, The FREE Network, and the USF Office of Community Engagement and Partnerships.

The Department of Homeland Security defines human trafficking as a “modern-day form of slavery involving the illegal trade of people for exploitation or commercial gain.” Most human trafficking in the United States involves sexual exploitation, followed by forced labor.

The panelists spoke about the challenges and opportunities of bringing the community together to more effectively help children and adults who have suffered the horrors of human trafficking and shared observations about the anti-trafficking movement.

The panel of speakers included a USF College of Public Health alumna, a USF faculty expert, a human trafficking survivor, and a representative from law enforcement.

Rose cautioned organizations and volunteers not to let human trafficking become the “next shiny, new object” to draw attention to their work, but to instead persevere in linking efforts and collectively creating a stronger voice for victims and survivors.  “We are human beings who, no matter how or where we were trafficked, deserve services,” she said.  “We deserve trauma therapy and medical treatment. We deserve to go to school and get an education.”

The ability to identify signs in individuals most likely to fall prey to human traffickers is essential for prevention and early intervention, the panelists agreed.

USF’s Bryanna Fox, PhD, (left). assistant professor in the Department of Criminology, collaborates with law enforcement to study risk factors that can lead individuals to become victims of human trafficking.

Former FBI agent Bryanna Fox, PhD, assistant professor in the USF Department of Criminology, College of Behavioral and Community Sciences, works with USF students to research the risk factors that can lead people, including runaway children, to become victims of human trafficking and develops evidence-based trainings to help law enforcement in their trafficking investigations.

“We’re looking at adverse childhood experiences – trauma, sexual abuse, drug use, mental illness, having parents who are incarcerated, neglect,” Fox said. “Each one of these things can raise a child’s risk of being a runaway exponentially, and when you’re a runaway the risk of having something bad happen to you on the street obviously increases.”

Many USF students participating in the workshop were from the service learning course taught by Elizabeth Dunn, MPH (pictured), or members of the Disaster and Humanitarian Relief (DAHR) Student Collaborative, for which Dunn serves as faculty advisor. 

Sasha Lohn, JD, general counsel for the St. Petersburg Police Department shared her perspective on how well-informed and trained law enforcement can play a major role in detecting human trafficking victims, a most vulnerable population that often remains unseen in the community.

Speaker Laura Hamilton, MPH, a USF College of Public Health alumna, is the founder and executive director of BRIDGING Freedom, a non-profit organization working to bring the state and Tampa Bay community together to establish a successful model for girls, ages 6 to 18, rescued from sex trafficking in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties. With support from the state, a land donor and local corporations, Hamilton said, Bridging Freedom, expects to open late this spring a therapeutic safe home campus – the first of its kind in Florida –where those rescued can be placed to receive the long-term services needed to heal the physical and psychological scars of sex trafficking and to transition back into society.

USF engineering student Alejandro Guerra (front right), volunteer coordinator for the “End Human Trafficking: A Community Approach” event, with three USF nursing student volunteers.

The program’s graduate-level professional staff will offer trauma-informed care, health care management, education, as well as life skills and mentors. The COPH-based Harrell Center will conduct outcomes evaluations to measure and monitor the effectiveness of programs, said Hamilton, who earned a master’s degree in global health practice from USF in 2011. “These girls have real potential… You need a program equipped to provide multi-faceted services to a child who has been brainwashed and manipulated multiple times a night, seven days a week, often for years.”

Following the panel discussion, the 115 attendees participated in breakout sessions led by USF students trained as facilitators. They brainstormed about ways to best advance their ambitious goals of ending human trafficking and supporting survivors in the community.  Questions addressed included what actions are needed to affect positive change in policy and legislation, how to overcome challenges to data collection and research, proactive vs. reactive strategies to prevent human trafficking, and what unique contributions different organizations can make towards combatting human trafficking.

USF public health student Andrea Tristan facilitates one of the workshop’s roundtable discussions.

Panel moderator Joanna Gutierrez Winters, president and chair of The FREE Network, perhaps wrapped up the workshop best in her closing remarks to students and others.

Human trafficking is a global problem and solving all the complex issues involved can sometimes feel overwhelming, she said, “but you can affect the immediate sphere of influence in your community… There is something we can all bring to the table to make a difference.”

Anthony Masys, PhD, director of the Global Disaster Management, Humanitarian Assistance and Homeland Security program at the USF College of Public Health, participates in a roundtable discussion with students and community advocates.


BY THE NUMBERS*

  • 300,000 – Children in the United States, at least, prostituted yearly (National District Attorneys Association)
  •  12 – Average age that a trafficked victim is first used for commercial sex (Department of Homeland Security)
  • 83% – Of sex trafficking victims identified in the United States were U.S. citizens according to a study of U.S. Department of Justice human trafficking task force cases. (Office of Florida Attorney General)
  • 52 – Approximate number of local child sex-trafficking victims rescued in 2015 (FBI Innocence Lost Initiative)
  • Less than 250 – Shelter beds for commercially sexually exploited children in the United States (EPCAT-USA)

*Source:  Statistics from the BRIDGING Freedom website

-Photos by Anna Mayor, USF College of Public Health Communications