In its 2019 Trafficking in Persons report, the U.S. Department of State estimated that 24.9 million people worldwide — roughly three times the population of New York City — were victims of human trafficking. A large percentage of those victims were trapped in sex trafficking activities, many of them in Florida, which annually reports one of the highest incidences of sex trafficking crimes in the United States.
According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline (NHTH), Florida reported 332 cases of sex trafficking in 2019, representing 10.2 percent of the 3,266 sex trafficking cases reported in the U.S. in 2019. NHTH statistics are based on the contacts-phone calls, texts, online chats, emails and webforms-received by the NHTH that reference Florida.
“This is a problem that is not going to improve without active work being done to combat the issue,” said Jessica Grosholz, an associate professor of criminology at the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee campus.
Grosholz is part of the USF team of researchers who are performing action research
evaluation on programs and services provided by Sarasota-based Selah Freedom, a national
anti-sex trafficking organization.
The researchers’ work with Selah Freedom began in 2018. In 2019, Selah Freedom was awarded a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Victims of Crime (OVC) expanding the scope of their outreach to include all forms of human trafficking, including sex trafficking and labor trafficking.
Grosholz and her team conduct in-depth interviews and focus groups with task force members and organizations, including members of law enforcement agencies and direct service organizations such as One More Child, the U.S. Institute Against Human Trafficking and Lutheran Services Florida. The action research evaluation utilizes a research design following the National Institute of Justice (2008) logic model adapted from McEwen (2003). The action research performed by Grosholz and colleagues Fawn Ngo and Sandra Stone provides vital feedback about Selah Freedom’s training programs for awareness, prevention, residential and outreach services, Ngo said.
The three have interviewed staff, volunteers and the women in the residential and outreach programs to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the organization and the services they provide. They have also analyzed some of their prevention surveys – given to adults and youth who take part in prevention programming and helped them re-design those surveys to identify strengths and gaps in knowledge about human trafficking and sex trafficking among participants in the prevention programs. These data are analyzed on a quarterly basis to ensure that project activities are producing the desired outcomes. By analyzing and reporting data quarterly, the task force can implement actionable solutions grounded in the evidence.
“We found that their initial surveys returned very favorable results, and we questioned whether that enabled them to see areas where improvement was needed,” said Ngo, an associate professor of criminology. “We helped them redesign their surveys to ask other questions that will help them determine areas where they can become more effective.”
By its definition, action research evaluation enables Grosholz, Ngo and Stone to provide Selah Freedom staff with input and feedback while the evaluations are ongoing, rather than waiting until their work ends. It began with an examination of Selah Freedom’s residential program in Sarasota and has broadened to include the organization’s work in Chicago.
The OVC grant, a portion of which funds the work being performed by the Sarasota-Manatee campus researchers, will also establish a network of services as part of a task force within an eight-county area coordinated by Selah Freedom and headed by the St. Petersburg Police Department with the singular goal of helping victims of human trafficking.
Through the funding, Grosholz, Ngo and Stone will continue their evaluations through October 2022. “This will allow us to build on the work we have already done interviewing clients and conducting focus groups for staff and volunteers,” said Stone, Sarasota-Manatee campus professor and assistant dean of graduate studies. “We have an opportunity to figure out what’s really going on and to assist with improving services for these victims.”
Women who arrive at Selah Freedom as sex trafficking victims enter the first stage of its residential program, an assessment house. They progress through the main residential facility and, eventually, reach the independent living phase. In both of those phases, they receive counseling to address their trauma and to provide support with communications skills, relationship building and job-search training. In addition, they participate in a range of therapeutic activities, such as cooking, exercise, group discussions and equine therapy. All of this is designed to enable them to resume their lives outside Selah Freedom’s care.
While the residential program is a focal point, Selah Freedom also provides awareness and prevention services aimed at helping school-aged children and their parents learn how to protect themselves from potential traffickers. Selah Freedom staff members also accompany regional law enforcement on patrols and jail visits as part of their outreach efforts. Through this project, Selah Freedom will provide an array of direct services for victims of all forms of human trafficking, either in-house or through community partnerships and develop referral plans for comprehensive services that are not provided in-house but through other community organizations.
The OVC project is critically important, providing the resources needed to support Selah Freedom’s mission to end human trafficking. The organization’s credibility was essential to securing the funding that will enable the action research evaluation to expand to look at all victims of human trafficking, including men and victims of labor trafficking, Grosholz said.
“Selah’s reputation as an anti-sex trafficking organization is really important,” Grosholz said.
“They have the connections with federal, state and local law enforcement as well as local service providers. They have the respect of the community. They are really good at their residential program, and having survivor success is a really big deal.”
The researchers have spent more than 100 hours embedded with Selah Freedom staff during therapy sessions, meal preparations and trainings with law enforcement and health care providers. So far, their evaluations have resulted in one book chapter and several technical reports and conference presentations.
“We hope to show other agencies around Florida and nationally how this kind of collaboration among law enforcement and direct service providers can work to benefit survivors and victims,” Grosholz said.
According to Ngo, collaborations between academic researchers and practitioners promote the implementation of evidence-based practice which entails the objective and sensible use of the best available empirical data to guide programmatic and practice decisions, rather than through anecdotal or professional experience alone.
From Selah Freedom’s standpoint, the researchers’ work has been instrumental, according to Misty LaPerriere, Selah Freedom’s National Law Enforcement liaison and trainer, who has conducted training sessions on awareness, prevention, residential and outreach services with the researchers in attendance.
“It’s absolutely invaluable to have someone from the outside come in and look at your operations and say, ‘Have you thought about doing it this way?’” LaPerriere said. “Their input can help us determine whether we are truly operating from a trauma-informed lens. We can see the real impact of our work when things are going right and it’s effective; and if things are going wrong, it helps us see that sooner rather than later.”