The University of South Florida St. Petersburg celebrated the grand opening of its human trafficking research lab Sept. 10.
To kick off the lab’s formal opening, several Florida politicians and university faculty gathered on campus to honor and recognize those who have been working against human trafficking.
Officially called the Human Trafficking Risk to Resilience Lab, the project began with a $92,000 grant from the University of South Florida. This grant enabled criminology faculty at the school to establish the study center, which serves as the first step in the department’s broader goal to “transform Tampa Bay into a region that’s resilient to human trafficking.”
Shelly Wagers, assistant professor of criminology, said filling gaps in human trafficking data, and creating a centralized database for those fighting human trafficking to obtain this data, are two of the lab’s primary goals.
“In human trafficking, especially, there’s been a big need to unify our data,” she explained. “In other words, there’s no one good location that is measuring and tracking human trafficking consistently to have a really good understanding.”
Unifying data is just one project among 10 that the lab is currently working on. Graduate students assist with these projects as well, and Wagers says the lab takes a multi-disciplinary approach to study human trafficking, so students with different academic backgrounds have an opportunity to contribute to the service-oriented research lab.
The lab’s director, Dr. Joan Reid, has authored two books and over 50 articles related to human trafficking and abuse, and teaches criminology at the University of South Florida. She has also worked as a licensed mental health counselor for 15 years. According to her, Tampa Bay is especially vulnerable to human trafficking.
“The Tampa Bay area is considered a hotspot for child sex trafficking due to a number of community vulnerabilities, including a high number of vulnerable youth and an influx of buyers,” Reid said in a University of South Florida release. “When you put those two together, you end up with a perfect storm.”
Florida has been consistently ranked as the state with the third highest rate of human trafficking in the country. Tampa Bay, including Pinellas County, is considered a problem area within the state.
Wagers, who formerly served as a police officer, said her and Dr. Reid’s experience working directly with victims gives them a better sense of what resources current police departments and anti-trafficking advocates need to better combat the illicit trade.
“It’s very exciting for us to be at the point in our careers where we can work together to do something really meaningful,” she said.
Moving ahead, faculty at the research lab are working to understand how traffickers operate, what groups serve as their consumers and how to better address victim needs. Wagers said studying these three pillars is crucial in order to build stronger community resilience to human trafficking.