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USF’s human trafficking research lab receives nearly $3 million in federal support to build and enhance anti-trafficking tools

By Matthew Cimitile, University Communications and Marketing

The University of South Florida’s Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Risk to Resilience Research Lab is moving forward with the creation of powerful new resources to combat human trafficking and aid victims after receiving nearly $3 million from the 2024 federal spending package. 

The funds will go towards the development of a statewide database to assist law-enforcement in human trafficking investigations and the expansion of an online platform to provide critical resources to survivors, such as housing and mental health, as they transition into a new life. 

“By creating and expanding these tools, we will be better able to combat and reduce this illegal activity in Florida while providing essential resources to survivors when they need it most,” said Joan Reid, USF St. Petersburg professor of criminology and director of the TIP Lab. “We can’t thank Rep. Kathy Castor and Rep. Scott Franklin enough for their leadership on issues related to disrupting human trafficking and providing support for our lab.”

At the request of U.S. Congressman Scott Franklin, around $1.85 million will go towards the expansion of the TIP Lab’s BRIGHT Network. This online platform developed in close collaboration with anti-trafficking professionals and survivors helps victims of human trafficking escape their situations and get back on their feet by streamlining efforts to connect them with organizations and resources across the state.

The BRIGHT (Bridging Resources and Information Gaps in Human Trafficking) Network is a centralized, secure platform that allows professionals in anti-trafficking organizations to track, coordinate and provide available resources to individuals. Law enforcement and social workers can use the platform as they seek to help victims of labor and sex trafficking. 

Resources and services on the network include housing, health, mental health and legal. Additional items such as clothing, food and employment will come online later in the year. All are highly vetted for trust and safety.

“It is helping us paint a more complete picture of the human trafficking situation in the greater Tampa Bay region, 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,” said Shelly Wagers, a criminology professor at USF St. Petersburg and lead researcher of the BRIGHT Network. “Federal support will now allow us to do the same throughout Florida.”

Rep. Castor meeting with professors associated with the TIP Lab.

Last year, U.S. Congresswoman Kathy Castor met with USF professors and researchers whose work contributes to the TIP Lab.

At the request of U.S. Congresswoman Kathy Castor, nearly $1 million will go towards the development and operation of a statewide human trafficking data repository called TIPSTR.

The database will assist law-enforcement human trafficking investigations, address gaps in victim services, develop prevention programs and provide a better understanding of the magnitude and trends in human trafficking across Florida and over time. Working with their tech partner Allies Against Slavery, the TIP Lab plans to have Florida's first statewide human trafficking database, which will be transformational in the state's fight against human trafficking, ready to launch by the end of the year.

“I am proud to witness the creation of such impactful resources in the fight against human trafficking and watch our faculty lead the way in developing these innovative anti-trafficking tools,” said Julie Serovich, dean of the College of Behavioral and Community Sciences. “It is through their dedication that we foster opportunities for meaningful change and empower survivors to find hope and healing.”

The federal funding enhances ongoing state support for this critical research lab. In 2023, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law a bill that made the TIP Lab the statewide repository for anonymous human trafficking data. In addition to collecting and analyzing statewide human trafficking data, the lab is tasked with evaluating the effectiveness of state-funded initiatives to combat trafficking and working with law enforcement and state agencies to report data on human trafficking investigations and prosecutions.  

“The continued support from both our state and federal elected officials shows just how vital the work is coming out of our TIP Lab,” said Christian Hardigree, regional chancellor of USF St. Petersburg. “These powerful tools will be key in making our region and the state of Florida more resilient and safer from this pervasive crime.”  

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