Panel discussions at UF focus on human trafficking


Published: Thursday, November 21, 2013 at 10:56 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, November 21, 2013 at 10:56 p.m.

A 44-page special report rested on each seat in Pugh Hall, and throughout the pages were detailed stories about survivors of human trafficking and prostitution.

“The Stolen Ones,” produced by the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, was at the center of series of panel discussions centered on human trafficking Thursday evening during “A Conversation on Modern-Day Slavery.” The free event was hosted by the University of Florida’s College of Journalism and Communications in partnership with the Sarasota Herald-Tribune and the Bob Graham Center for Public Service.

The investigative series gave an inside look into the life of prostitution, featuring survivors, law enforcement officers, psychology experts and advocates.

Diane McFarlin, the dean of the college of journalism at UF, first welcomed the 105 attendees to the event. McFarlin spent decades at the Herald-Tribune and described the project as “unprecedented” and “comprehensive.”

McFarlin said the college decided to host this event partly because of the lessons that budding journalists can take away about investigative journalism.

“It’s powerful,” she said, pointing out that the special report revolves around the experiences of one girl who became a victim of prostitution during her adolescence.

The report was written by J. David McSwane, a 26-year-old reporter for the Herald-Tribune.

McSwane said he heard conversations in the community about human trafficking and people coming together to combat the issue, but he was skeptical at first.

When he started to research news stories and reports, he said he found that human trafficking was a largely underreported issue or the reporting out there wasn’t good.

He said every day there are stories about prostitutes being rounded up in a sting or a prostitute’s clients, commonly referred to as “johns,” being arrested.

“It was difficult to see this as a community issue and difficult to see as a human issue I think for a lot of people,” he said.

During the event Thursday night, each panel began the discussion with a video of one of the sources from the special report. Bridget Grogan, a news director for WUFT News and professor at the college, would then moderate the conversation.

The first panel discussed McSwane’s story and the stigma many survivors of human trafficking face.

Herald-Tribune projects editor Scott Carroll said the special report touches on the issue of choice. Some view prostitutes as criminals, but he said through McSwane’s reporting, you learn that the survivors of human trafficking were victims of child abuse first.

“These are decisions that are understandable,” he said, adding that prostitution often isn’t a choice but instead a way for people to survive.

Connie Brown, a survivor, said many people don’t understand that girls don’t ask for a life in prostitution.

“It is a lifelong journey,” she said. “It doesn’t just stop the minute you’re rescued. It doesn’t stop the minute you’ve testified.”

During the second panel, legal experts discussed the law behind prostitution and the different pathways toward finding a solution.

Frank Williams, assistant U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Florida, explained to the audience that just because they don’t see prostitution happening in their community, doesn’t mean it isn’t there. He said he’s seen the marketplace for prostitution move from on the streets to the Internet in recent years.

Williams said investigation alone isn’t going to solve the issue, especially considering human trafficking has been around almost as long as mankind.

Solving the issue is going to take going to the heart of the issue, he said, which is the marketplace for prostitution.

“If there’s a market, there’s always going to be people who are willing to provide the service that people want to pay for,” he said. “If we’re serious about eliminating this, then we’ll have to go right to the heart of this, and that is the market.”

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