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USF Panel Brings Awareness About Human Trafficking

Law enforcement panel on human trafficking at the University of South Florida.
Ashley Lisenby | WUSF
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Law enforcement say changes in policies and technology are helping them find human traffickers.

Officials from the Tampa Police Department, Pasco County Sherriff's Office and the Department of Homeland Security discussed the advances in and challenges of finding victims of sex trafficking and their abusers at a conference at the University of South Florida in Tampa Tuesday.

They said changes include arresting fewer victims of sex trafficking and better connecting them with services, such as housing. They say that change could make victims less fearful of law enforcement.

Pasco County Cpl. Alan Wilkett said technological changes also help officials find traffickers, including search engine algorithms and Internet bots that start conversations with people after they have engaged with an ad.  The department emplimented the Intercept bots last year.

He says the bots allow officials "to potentially have the outreach for thousands to be investigated at the same opposed to one at a time or the old traditional reverse stings."

Wilkett said local law enforcement should also focus on prevention for two key reasons: the cost of recovery programs and, most importantly, the trauma trafficking causes victims.

"If we prevent that (trafficking) from happening [...] not only do we save the money, we save a life," he said.

He said recovery programs could be as expensive as $250 to $400 a day for a bed, and victims could be in recovery for as long as several months to two years.

The reports that 85 percent of sex trafficking victims were abused as children and most are between the ages of 12 and 15 when they are first trafficked. 

The Tampa Bay area has a number of strip clubs and sex parlors that experts have said could draw trafficking as well as the proximity to Interstate highways, ports and major sporting venues that host large events.

WUSF reported in February that local officials are starting to form their security plans to tackle human trafficking issues when Tampa hosts the Super Bowl in 2021.

California, Texas, and Florida are the top three states with the highest number of reported human trafficking cases. 

Florida lawmakers are considering proposals that crack down on human trafficking, including a bill that would teach warning signs to public school students.

Pedetrician Vinita Kiluk teaches medical students at the USF Morsani College of Medicine. She says she trains her students to be aware of the signs of trafficking.

"There are so many opportunities where we miss finding people who are being trafficked. They come to us and we just don't even know," Kiluk said.

Trafficking victims could potentially show signs of physical or emotional abuse, including anxiety or paranoia, or poor hygiene, fatigue or malnourishment, according to the National Human Trafficking Hotline. People can call the hotline at 1-888-373-7888.

Copyright 2019 WUSF Public Media - WUSF 89.7

Ashley Lisenby is a general assignment reporter at WUSF Public Media. She covered racial and economic disparity at St. Louis Public Radio before moving to Tampa in 2019.