New Research Lab to Combat Human Trafficking in Tampa Bay and Beyond

The Human Trafficking Risk to Resilience Research Lab aims to transform Tampa Bay into a region that’s resilient to human trafficking.

(May 19, 2020) – Criminology professor Joan Reid and three colleagues have received a $92,000 grant to establish a research lab at USF’s St. Petersburg campus devoted to studying human trafficking, an important step toward their ultimate goal of transforming Tampa Bay into a region that’s resilient to human trafficking.

The grant, a USF Strategic Investment Award, will be used by interdisciplinary researchers and community partners to establish the Human Trafficking Risk to Resilience Research Lab. Criminology professors Shelly Wagers (USF’s St. Petersburg campus), Bryanna Fox (USF’s Tampa campus) and Fawn Ngo (USF’s Sarasota-Manatee campus) will serve as co-principal investigators.

“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 explained. “When you put those two together, you end up with a perfect storm.”

For its first research project, the Human Trafficking Risk to Resilience Research Lab was awarded nearly $30,000 in internal grants to analyze data from hundreds of suspected child sex trafficking cases compiled by Child Protective Investigators in the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office. The data includes anonymized information about trafficker behaviors, including how they attempt to identify and entrap vulnerable children.

“The purpose of this project is to understand if there are different profiles related to child sex traffickers and if we can determine how they operate,” Reid said. “With a better understanding of their tactics, we can do a better job of helping prevent this from happening in our communities.”

The funding allows for three graduate assistants to participate in the Human Trafficking Risk to Resilience Research Lab, offering them the opportunity to engage in critical research with real-world consequences.

“Many students want to be involved in research,” Reid said. “They want to combat human trafficking and assist survivors.”

Ken Kilian, director of Pasco’s Child Protective Investigations, said his office hopes to provide a more informed and comprehensive response to child sex trafficking.

“The potential benefits of this collaborative project include an enhanced understanding of the tactics used by child sex traffickers to entrap their victims” Killian said. “This information may then be used to inform policy decisions, prevention efforts, and even prosecution strategies.

“We consider USF St. Petersburg faculty to be leaders in the field of criminal justice,” he added. “We value their partnership and unwavering commitment to conducting research that has the real possibility of improving the health and well-being of the people in our communities.”

Reid has been working to combat human trafficking since the early 2000s. She has published more than 30 journal articles on the topic and her research was presented before the U.S. Congress in 2008 as part of a national report on domestic minor sex trafficking.

In future projects, Reid hopes to broaden the lab’s approach to include sex traffickers of adults as well as work with partners in other states to evaluate programs intended to reduce demand for sex trafficking.

“Right now, there’s a vacuum of information about the crimes and perpetrator tactics,” Reid said. “There’s not much known about how sex traffickers operate. Because of that, it’s hard to determine best practices for protection and prevention. This knowledge can be used in our own community, nation-wide and even globally to better understand how traffickers work.”