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Human trafficking platform launches at USF St. Petersburg

Ashley Morales

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More than 100 attendees got a firsthand look at the BRIGHT (Bridging Resources and Information Gaps in Human Trafficking) Network May 16 at a launch event at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. Photos by Ashley Morales.

The University of South Florida (USF) is officially launching an online platform called the BRIGHT (Bridging Resources and Information Gaps in Human Trafficking) Network. 

The BRIGHT Network was developed by USF’s Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Risk to Resilience Lab, in collaboration with anti-trafficking professionals and survivors. The platform compiles data and helps organizations aid victims of human trafficking by providing 24/7 online access to essential resources.

Thursday morning, researchers who developed the BRIGHT Network demonstrated the online platform with a launch event at USF St. Petersburg. More than 100 people attended, including representatives from law enforcement agencies, government offices and nonprofit organizations.

The BRIGHT Network is a centralized, secure system that allows vetted anti-trafficking organizations to coordinate and provide resources like healthcare, housing, mental health support and legal aid to sex and labor trafficking survivors. Law enforcement, non-profits and social workers can use the platform when assisting trafficking victims.

The TIP Lab’s BRIGHT project stemmed from a needs assessment conducted by the lab in the Fall of 2020. Dr. Joan A. Reid, a criminology professor at USF and director of the TIP Lab, said their team of researchers conducted more than a thousand hours of interviews to determine how to best tackle the issue of human trafficking in Florida.

“[Researchers] said, ‘They want an embedded network of care. They want to be able to connect survivors to services in real time.’ And I thought, ‘Are you kidding me?’” Reid recounted to the crowd at Thursday’s event. “I have been going to human trafficking task force meetings in the State of Florida since 2003, and I thought, ‘20 years later and you’re still asking for that?’ We have to try to meet that need.”

Boomer Rose of Humanistic Technologies, a tech startup that builds technology to serve vulnerable communities, gave a demonstration of the BRIGHT Network platform he and his team helped USF’s Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Risk to Resilience Lab develop.

Data from the National Human Trafficking Hotline shows Florida ranks third (behind only California and Texas) for the number of calls made to report cases of trafficking, emphasizing the scale of the issue in the state.

“In my work in higher education, this is an area and a field that I had been very engaged in,” said USF St. Petersburg Regional Chancellor Christian Hardigree. “We actually made sure all of our hospitality students were certified in this because so much of the trafficking occurred in hotels. I just love the commitment and passion to finding solutions at USF.”

Experts who study human trafficking in the state say the Tampa Bay area, being one of Florida’s largest metropolitan areas, sees a large share of the state’s illicit human sex and labor trade. The Tampa Bay area is also host to much of the state’s tourism, with easy international access through its seaports and airports and a sizeable adult entertainment industry.

The BRIGHT Network started as a pilot program in Hillsborough County. Thursday’s launch event was not only about celebrating a milestone in the network’s development; researchers also hosted training sessions to teach stakeholders throughout Florida how to use the BRIGHT platform as part of a statewide rollout.

Corporal (Ret.) Alan Wilkett of the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office, the event’s keynote speaker, said finding trafficking perpetrators is well within law enforcement’s wheelhouse, but identifying resources quickly and easily to aid victims has been a pervasive issue. 

“Our function is obviously to kick down doors and find bad guys,” Wilkett said. “Law enforcement has a targeted role, and sometimes when it comes to recovery [of a victim], it’s like, ‘What do we do now?’ If only we had a system to cut through the noise, cut through the bureaucracy, cut through all the red tape that sometimes is not just frustrating, it can be maddening. Then you add the trauma of human trafficking, and it’s another layer.”

The BRIGHT Network aims to solve this issue, harnessing the power of data and technology to assist the humans on the front lines who help trafficking victims at all points throughout their journey to safety and recovery. 

“Oftentimes, governments, NGOs and other entities try to dictate to the survivor what they need. Really, it needs to be the other way around. The survivor should be telling us, and we need to build it. The victim-survivor must be centered,” Corporal (Ret.) Alan Wilkett of the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office said in his keynote address.

Dr. Shelly Wagers, a criminology professor at USF St. Petersburg and director of the BRIGHT Network, said previously siloed data made human trafficking rates unclear, impeding efforts to implement meaningful policies, resources and prevention programming. She said her team originally examined other existing tech but didn’t feel the vetting process was strong enough to keep the data and victims safe, so the TIP Lab built its own tech instead, resulting in a years-long process that led to the development of the BRIGHT Network.

“We find with human trafficking victims that if they’re in that crisis mode and they reach out, they’ll reach out once, and if they don’t get something right away, they’re typically kind of lost,” Wagers explained. “What we’re working to do is figure out where those gaps are and to funnel the funding there so [victims] can get that longer-term stable housing, banking and all of their needs through the full continuum recovery.”

Legislation signed in 2023 made the TIP Lab the statewide repository for anonymous human trafficking data collected by a variety of statewide sources. Reid said the TIP Lab team also helped draft Senate Bill 7064 to increase victim support by tasking the lab’s researchers with evaluating the effectiveness of state-funded initiatives.

The TIP Lab recently received nearly $3 million in federal funding to expand the BRIGHT Network. U.S. Rep. Scott Franklin secured $1.85 million and Congresswoman Kathy Castor requested a nearly $1 million appropriation for the facility’s statewide data repository. 

“This is the kind of funding that you really need to put the pedal to the metal and not just keep inching along”, said Julie Serovich, Dean of the College of Behavioral and Community Sciences at USF. “This is really going to move us forward fast.”

Wagers said there are currently 18 organizations in the BRIGHT system, including Selah Freedom, an anti-human trafficking non-profit based in Florida and the Midwest, and Gulf Coast Legal Services, a regional 501(c)3 that provides free legal aid for vulnerable clients. She said 10 more are in the process of being vetted and 15 are waiting to be onboarded.

She also said they’re not stopping with the online BRIGHT Network platform. They’re now working to develop a mobile application that will help first responders and trafficking advocates working in the field. 

Wagers, a former law enforcement officer herself, said the innovative BRIGHT Network platform puts Florida on the front lines of solving the issues caused by human trafficking.

“There is technology out there that people have created to kind of find services, but ours is unique because it’s specific to human trafficking,” Wagers explained. “It also was created in partnership with direct service providers and put forefront their voices and survivor voices in the creation of the system. So every variable, every thing it does, every piece of data is based on them telling us what they need to know to better serve victims and fight human trafficking. That is very different.”

 

 

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    Steven Brady

    May 18, 2024at7:14 am

    I read the entire article. Not a single word about repatriating these people to their home countries where they can be taken care of. To any American taxpayer that should set off warning alarms in their heads.

    When Americans get in trouble overseas, they are returned to their home country, the United States, where we take care of them. That’s the norm.

    Instead, we have a new area of the victim business forming. A new bureaucracy.

    And while there certainly are significant victims involved in this business, how many of them are willing participants? There must be a percentage. How could I possibly ask this? Go to any of the nail salons In the Tampa area or Florida. Or anywhere else. Do you think these almost universally Asian women are here legally? Do you think they paid for their own travel? The answer to both is no. There is no visa category for doing nails.

    These women have been trafficked.

    Ask any woman who gets their nails done… They would be hard-pressed to think these women are victims. Even though they have been trafficked.

    I suspect that many are knowing and willing participants.

    I wonder how many in attendance at the conference got their nails done by somebody here in this country illegally. Women who have been technically trafficked.

    Trafficked A word that can mean probably anything someone wants it to mean.

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