By Matthew Cimitile, University Communications and Marketing
An online platform developed by researchers at the University of South Florida, in close collaboration with anti-trafficking professionals and survivors, will help victims of human trafficking escape their situations and get back on their feet by streamlining efforts to connect them with organizations and resources in Tampa Bay.
The BRIGHT (Bridging Resources and Information Gaps in Human Trafficking) Network is a centralized, secure platform that will allow professionals in anti-trafficking organizations to track, coordinate and provide available resources such as health care and safe housing to individuals. Law enforcement and social workers can use the platform as they seek to help victims of labor and sex trafficking.
Initial resources and services on the network, which is a project of the USF Trafficking in Persons - Risk to Resilience Lab, include housing, health, mental health, and legal. Additional resources such as clothing, food and employment will come online later in the year. All are highly vetted for trust and safety.
“There was a community need to develop such a network to help human trafficking victims, survivors and the anti-trafficking community better locate and find the essential services that are usually needed right away,” said Shelly Wagers, a criminology professor at the USF St. Petersburg campus and lead researcher of the BRIGHT Network.
Currently, when law enforcement officials encounter trafficking victims during the line of duty, they may not be sure where to turn to find help for the individual or what resources such as shelters are available. Since for many trafficking victims it may take multiple attempts to detach them from their situation, connecting them with the right people and resources at the right time is key.
Community partners say the BRIGHT Network could be vital in making those connections.
“This platform can make it easier for a victim of human trafficking to leave the life and their trafficker” said Kathleen Kempke, client services compliance administrator for the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay. “It enables someone to receive support and resources, as they move from place to place, without having to retell their story. The constant support from those resources along with access to safe shelter, employment assistance and mental and physical health providers will make a huge difference for someone having options to successfully leave human trafficking.”
The network, which also involves criminology researchers on the USF Sarasota-Manatee campus, was recently awarded a $150,000 grant from Hillsborough County to develop an initial pilot program. A $25,000 grant from the Mel Greene Foundation also helped in launching this project.
For the pilot, five local organizations - Created Women, Crisis Center of Tampa Bay, Justice Restoration Center, Selah Freedom and United Abolitionists – will utilize the platform to coordinate their work.
“From this initial five, the plan is to bring five to ten more anti-trafficking organizations onto the platform in the coming months, and then another group of five to ten more as the platform further develops and the network strengthens,” said Kailey Pate Carter, the project manager for the BRIGHT Network.
Use of the network will not only strengthen the anti-trafficking community, but collect key data based on requests by victims. Data collected will provide concrete information on the scope of the trafficking problem for the region, demographics on victims and survivors, and their most pressing needs. Such vital data can inform local programs and legislation.
“It will help us paint a more complete picture of the human trafficking situation in Tampa Bay, including what types of services are needed, what might not be available and what groups are missing to assist in helping victims and disrupting human trafficking,” Wagers said.
The BRIGHT Network came about after extensive consultations with anti-trafficking organizations and others in the community. While the secure platform was being built, an advisory board and development team consisting of anti-trafficking professionals and survivors informed the network.
The BRIGHT Network is modeled on the Pathway Referral Network, which was developed by the United Against Human Trafficking organization for the city of Houston. Since it was launched in February 2020, this referral network has led to dramatic increases in connecting victims and survivors with the care and resources needed to transition into a new life, said Nate Arneson, national manager of the Pathway Referral Network.
“We have created a strong community and we are far more efficient now in getting human trafficking victims connected to the resources they need,” Arneson said, who has assisted USF researchers with the development of the BRIGHT Network. “When we started, we had about a 20 percent chance of getting someone connected on the first match to the service they needed. By the end of the first year, that increased to 60 percent.”
On February 23 at noon, an online demo event with local anti-trafficking agencies and personnel using the BRIGHT Network will take place at Harbor Hall on the USF St. Petersburg campus. The platform is planned to launch by the end of February.
In time, USF researchers plan to build out the network so human trafficking victims and survivors can have direct access to the portal. And if all goes well, they hope to replicate the BRIGHT Network in other regions of Florida, with the goal of becoming a state-wide platform to assist survivors and combat trafficking.