Back in 2007, few knew about human trafficking in Gainesville. It took a whole community to change that.

As she approached the dark-wooded podium, her nerves turned to fire. Each step closer to the microphone left her wondering if it was the right decision. One foot on the stage, and then the other. There was no turning back now.

“Everyone, please welcome Ann*, a child trafficking survivor,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Frank Williams said.

Survivor. The introduction surprised her. This was something she hadn’t yet identified in herself.

She peered into a crowd of more than 40 people gathered for the symposium hosted by the Alachua County Coalition Against Human Trafficking. Williams looked up at her from the first row. He sat alongside Sherry Kitchens and John Madsen, two people whose work over the past decade had led to this moment. She didn’t make eye contact.

Her hands were tucked close to her body; she kept her head down. The audience sat expectantly. You could hear a pin drop.

At age 12, she said, her mother’s boyfriend sold her. When she escaped a year later, she found no help waiting for her.

Before she met the coalition, she had seen nothing done about human trafficking. But at this point, she was no longer concerned about herself. Though she spoke quietly, she wanted to prevent this from happening to anyone else. 

It was 2012, and few people would acknowledge that children were being sold for sex so close to home. For Williams, Kitchens and Madsen, her words only confirmed that their efforts had been worthwhile.

“Please, don’t ever stop what you’re doing,” she pleaded. “There are so many people out there who need you.”

Human trafficking is the involuntary or coerced trade of another person, often for sexual exploitation. Commonly assumed to be something that happens in foreign countries or big cities, trafficking happens regularly in the United States, in Florida, and even in Alachua County. 

According to Florida State’s Department of Law Enforcement, a total of 85 people were identified as offenders and arrested for the crime of human trafficking in Florida from 2004 to 2013. This number excludes federal data and only takes local and state arrests into account. The arrests were made after the passing of a 2004 state law, called FL State Statute 787.06, that recognized human trafficking as a crime of its own in Florida for the first time.

“It really has been an overlooked thing historically,” said John Madsen, a Gainesville Police Department detective who heads the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force. “We were of the same perception as most people are, that human trafficking is not something that happens locally. It’s something that happens in foreign countries or at a border crossing.”

In 2015, Gainesville’s Child Advocacy Center identified 18 children, many of whom were between the ages of 12 and 16, who had been trafficked in Alachua County.

In one closed case, the trafficker harbored a 15-year-old girl in a Gainesville house through May and June of 2015. He would transport her to clients in nearby private houses and motels.

“Not a week goes by that my phone doesn’t ring about a lead, a tip, a new case that shows up,” said Florida Law Enforcement Special Agent Jeff Vash at a presentation on human trafficking held at Santa Fe Community College in October.

Vash, who is in the process of investigating four cases, works with the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force. Formed in 1997, the task force originally focused on child pornography, illicit file sharing and traveling to meet minors for sex. And assistant U.S. attorney Williams, who prosecutes local human trafficking cases, is currently handling six.

Spot illustrations by Samantha Schuyler

“It’s almost like drawing a map,” Vash said. “It seems that every time we get involved with a case and peel one layer back, there’s two or three more behind it.”

This is due, in part, to the Internet and smartphones, Madsen said. Backpage, a classifieds website with a section for “adult services,” came to Gainesville in 2011 and has offered more ease of access for traffickers and consumers. Madsen identified it as one of the biggest sites for underage trafficking, among other places like the darknet and KiK.

In many cases, traffickers advertise girls as over 18, when in reality they are much younger. For example, one backpage ad pointed out by Williams showed a girl advertised as 22, but her actual age was 14.

But according to Williams, the current numbers don’t show the extent of the problem.

“You will see, without any question,” he said, “that the number will steadily increase. But how many more is it going to take for this community to recognize it as a problem?”

This creates an issue for people who are trying to combat human trafficking; plumbing the Internet, where much of this occurs, takes time and resources that local agencies don’t have.

“Not a week goes by that my phone doesn’t ring about a lead, a tip, a new case that shows up,”

“The brutal honesty of it is that there’s really no resources to investigate this. I’ve talked to several girls that have been almost forced to get on Backpage,” he said. “We’re so understaffed in this agency, let alone the detective bureau, let alone the efforts dedicated to proactive work.”

He added that criminals and victims can be identified on the Internet through discoverable IP addresses, phone numbers and more — but without staffing, they don’t have the means to actually investigate.

“It takes a team of people to do it safely,” he said. “Right now we’re in a place where we don’t have the assets to do the proactive stuff. It’s only when it’s brought to our attention.”

According to Williams, though they have a long way to go, the situation is improving because local agencies and organizations are finally coming together to combat the problem.

In 2012, when Ann made her speech, the players were finally sitting in the same room, uniting for the same cause. But it took years for them to identify the existence of local human trafficking, let alone start working together.

In 2013, the Polaris Project released a report that shocked public officials: It confirmed controversial statistics that ranked Florida third in the nation for human trafficking.

But for Sherry Kitchens, director of Gainesville’s Child Advocacy Center, and detective John Madsen, the report was bringing attention to an issue they had been chasing since 2010. 

Kitchens has been working with ungovernable, runaway and truant children over her 23-year career, but it wasn’t until 2007 — two years after she became the director of the center — that she understood the connection between the neglected children she worked with and human trafficking.

“I hadn’t even heard the term ‘human trafficking’ until 2007,” she said, “even though I had been working with these victims for many years.”​​​​​​​


Everything clicked after Florida State University’s Center for the Advancement of Human Rights presented on the subject for a conference at the advocacy center. This was the first training session on human trafficking in the area, Kitchens said.

As the presenter walked through several sex trafficking cases, Kitchens immediately thought of a girl she had worked with in Trenton, a rural town a few miles outside Gainesville. She would disappear for six-month stints — her older boyfriend was bringing her to Miami to dance in clubs. Though the family did the best they could, the young girl’s mobile home was bare, her mother had been recently incarcerated and the town had already pegged her as a troublemaker.

She realized that the seventh-grader’s circumstances matched what the presenter was describing as the perfect storm for traffickers to swoop in. Not only that, she realized that by being outside of the investigation process and only providing therapy after the fact, she and others who worked in child support had limited their effectiveness.

“We’ve seen these kids all along,” she said. “This is happening to these kids, and we’re missing it.”

With this new information, Kitchens formed the first link among local advocates and law enforcement on the topic of human trafficking in 2008, when she helped launch the Alachua County Human Trafficking Task Force. It united 35 agencies and 105 volunteers from the Alachua County Sheriff’s Department and the Child Advocacy Center, meeting every other month to hold training sessions on human trafficking of all kinds.

“It takes a team of people to do it safely,” he said. “Right now we’re in a place where we don’t have the assets to do the proactive stuff. It’s only when it’s brought to our attention.”

Between then and 2010, local advocacy groups and law enforcement began working more closely together. They shared perspectives, resources and expertise, helping each other to better approach human trafficking cases across the county. They had found that victims were telling different stories depending on who they spoke to, especially when law enforcement got involved. Traffickers had taught victims never to speak to police; and police, too, needed to be educated on how to approach victims.

“Teaching some of those folks how these children need to be addressed differently, and law enforcement and prosecutors trusting the victim service providers, has made the biggest difference across the board,” Kitchens said.

Kitchen’s long-term plan was to eventually use the structure of the Child Advocacy Center, which unites law enforcement, prosecutors, therapists, child protection investigators, advocates, medical personnel, social workers and guardians into an organized system in child abuse investigations, for human trafficking cases. First, Kitchens said, she had to convince local child support workers that Alachua County had a human trafficking problem, not a “bad kid” problem.

But in April 2010, due to lack of resources, the sheriff’s office announced they could no longer support the task force. At the time, the office had identified 21 labor trafficking cases, but sex trafficking cases are harder to unearth. Many times victims keep quiet, having been convinced by traffickers that what’s happening to them is their fault. Without reports coming in, the sheriff couldn’t justify putting resources into the task force.

The sheriff suggested they leave the cases to federal officers and task forces in bigger cities, like Jacksonville. But Kitchens argued that Alachua County was different. For example, its rural makeup was important to consider, among other issues they hadn’t scratched the surface of in 2010.

“By that time we were too far along to go backwards,” she said. “The work was too important.”

After moving the task force to the state attorney’s office, it slid into dormancy until 2012, when Trinity United Methodist Church reached out to Kitchens. For the first time, members of the community, rather than child care professionals, were getting involved. They offered to take the task force over, eventually turning it into what it is today: the Alachua County Coalition Against Human Trafficking.

“It’s taken a while to trickle down,” said Marie Samec, vice president of the coalition. “I think the awareness is finally there; it was not when we started this in 2012.”

Ann agreed, saying that being a survivor in Gainesville was the same as being a survivor anywhere else: No one knew or talked about it. Samec said that the coalition used Ann’s testimony to determine what needed to be worked on.

First, Kitchens said, she had to convince local child support workers that Alachua County had a human trafficking problem, not a “bad kid” problem.

After a year of planning, the coalition began organizing events, meetings and communication among members to keep them engaged in the task of fighting human trafficking. They put together care packages for victims. Then they launched a six-week symposium on human trafficking that brought Kitchens, Madsen and Williams together to speak. That was when Ann was given a chance to tell her story to the public.

“We all came to see each other speak,” Kitchens said. “And that bonded us together in a different way, even though we were all doing parts of the work already.”​​​​​​​

“Most cases, you do your little piece and you’re out,” Kitchens added. “We see our work is much more effective when we keep everybody hooked together.”

Now everyone is interlaced, working collaboratively and sharing information with each other. For example, in 2012 Madsen learned about how the Dallas Police Department used interviews to discover a link between chronic runaways and their potential to be lured into human trafficking. He eventually brought what he learned back to GPD, and they created a formal unit based on the findings. Madsen said it helped change GPD’s perspective on victims of human trafficking.

Madsen then used GPD and Alachua County Sheriff’s Department databases to flag 267 chronic runners. Though he and Kitchens had been interviewing high-risk victims since 2010, it was now a concerted effort.

“We started with the kids who had run away eight times. And I can tell you, by then they’ve absolutely been trafficked,” Kitchens said. “Many of them were almost adults and wouldn’t even talk to you.”

Then, after the 2013 report was released, the state finally caught up when the Florida Department of Law Enforcement hired Jeff Vash to investigate human trafficking cases. The state also passed the Safe Harbor Act, which for the first time treated those caught in human trafficking as victims instead of criminals.

“We had been reviewing high-risk victims for three years by then — which is a completely new way to do it anywhere around, because no one else was doing it,” Kitchens said. “[State officials] were calling me consistently for stuff to put in their bills.” 

There is, of course, still more to do. For example, the coalition hopes to bring a victim-oriented facility to Gainesville, which Vash said would be used and probably filled in no time.

“As far as getting victims help — they need extensive help, and I don’t know what the answer is,” he continued. “Once they’ve reached a certain age, they’ve been victimized for so long, it’s indoctrinated into who they are. If they wanted to get out it’d have to be a conscious choice, years of counseling, substance abuse treatment.”

The coalition is currently visiting shelters across the state to understand how they are run.

“There’s a shortage of shelters across the country, and in this area there’s none,” said Samec. “There are no shelters for adult victims available.”

Not only that, Kitchens said that it takes about five years for a victim to be rehabilitated and start leading a normal life. After the Safe Harbor Act passed in 2013, 10 children have been placed in safe harbors, or long-term therapeutic programs that keep victims from triggering environments that could provoke a backslide into trafficking. There are no safe harbor placements in the area for children who are trafficked elsewhere, like in nearby rural areas, which she hopes will soon change.

Samec also added that they want to get awareness into the school system, which has not been done previously. She said there’s a lot they hope to do, but everything comes down to money.

“It needs to be a higher priority,” she said. “The federal and state government both say it is, but without the money to get things done, how much of a priority is it?"

*Ann’s name has been changed to protect her identity.