For Lisa Newman, the fight against child sex trafficking in Tampa Bay is more than a bandwagon issue.
In 2011, Newman says, a camp counselor took her son, then 5, to a home where men photographed and sexually abused boys. She knows this because, after weeks of torment, her son stopped eating and speaking. He told his parents what happened during those hours when, for seven weeks, they trusted a Brandon area summer day program.
"This perpetrator manipulated our son from favor to fear," Newman said. "We had no idea the darkness we would be walking into as the story began to unfold."
Newman's older son, Caleb, a 17-year-old quarterback at Seffner Christian Academy, will tell his family's story Jan. 11 at Freedom at the Cross, a men's conference at Bridgeway Church in Wesley Chapel.
The program, presented by the local nonprofit Two Boards and Three Nails, will feature guest speakers and live music, including a performance by American Idol finalist and Valrico resident Jeremy Rosado. State Rep. Ross Spano and Nick Canuso, an ambassador for Florida Abolitionist, a nonprofit organization that focuses on ending modern-day slavery, will deliver comments along with Dan and Maria Silva, founders of Two Boards.
The group will address what sex trafficking looks like in Tampa Bay, how it affects men, and what men can do to help end it.
"The many faces of human trafficking blend into the community," Maria Silva said. "There are doctors, teachers and people in other prominent jobs fueling the supply and demand. There are recruiters positioned in the schools. This is happening all around us, and many people don't realize it."
According to antitrafficking agencies, Florida is ranked third in the country for human trafficking activity, which includes forced labor. In the United States, the average age of a sex trafficking victim is 12.
Silva said traffickers use fear to keep teens and children quiet.
"They say if you try something we will kill your parents or we know where you live, so the kids don't say anything," Silva said. "And if they do, because of the way legislation is set up, it can be hard to prosecute."
In the Newman case, no arrests have been made. Newman says the counselor, or "coach," as her son called him, was fired but never prosecuted. When she dropped her boys off at the camp — she didn't divulge the name for legal reasons — the man reminded her of a "fun-loving grandpa," she says. She did not suspect anything.
For an act to be considered sex trafficking, the victim must be forced into activity for commercial sex purposes. In the Newman case, the family contends that the boy was transported to a home during camp hours where child pornography was produced to sell.
In Florida, sex trafficking victims must disclose their stories in private forensic interviews. Newman's son has spoken only to the family.
"A mother or parent is not allowed to be with the child during disclosure, and in our case, even after three months of working through therapy with pictures and recorded conversations, a mother's voice couldn't count as evidence," Newman said. "My son's pictures and voice recordings do not count as evidence."
Silva said the Freedom at the Cross conference on Jan. 11 will focus on the demand side of sex trafficking. Topics will include pornography, prostitution and related legislation. Men who attend will hear real stories and, organizers hope, be prompted to action.
"It starts with prevention and educating the adults to stop the demand," Newman said. "If we can educate the community, then we can rescue more children and prevent more trauma."
Sarah Whitman can be reached at [email protected]