Linda Smith, the founder of anti-sex trafficking organization Shared Hope International, travels the United States and the world in her efforts to stop the practice of child sex slavery.
On Tuesday afternoon, the former Washington state congresswoman stopped by Largo City Hall to meet with city officials to spread her message.
In an informal, hourlong discussion, Smith shared some of her stories.
They included tales of girls as young as 11 moved from place to place, from Miami to Tampa Bay to New York, in a long cycle of exploitation.
She spoke, in terms often too graphic for prime-time television, of how these young victims are stripped of dignity, and reduced in almost a catalog-like form to their race, the sex acts they will perform and their price.
She also spoke about what many states and law enforcement agencies do wrong in handling cases involving underage sex workers.
"What I'm starting to believe is that decriminalizing the minors and going after the buyer makes more sense," Smith said.
And that such crimes occur locally, even in relatively safe, residential cities like Largo.
One of the other topics at the meeting, attended by Mayor Patricia Gerard, Commissioner Gigi Arntzen, police Chief Lester Aradi and City Manager Mac Craig, is what people can do to help fight human trafficking.
Gerard, who has worked for years as a victim advocate and in the mental health field, said increasing education to local law enforcement would be a good way to locally extend the work being done by Smith's organization.
"I love the idea of doing training," Gerard said.
Arntzen, who said she didn't know much about human trafficking, walked away from the meeting with much food for thought.
"I'm really on the outside looking in. It's such a needed subject to be talked about," Arntzen said. "You think it doesn't happen in little Largo. But it does."
Aradi said the new perspectives on the issue being uncovered by Smith tell him it's an area law enforcement still has much to learn about, and do more to prevent.
"We're in the initial stage of uncovering the full depth of the problem. We're just scratching the surface," Aradi said. "The work she's doing does a lot to open our eyes. The average citizen would be shocked at what goes on."
Smith will be delivering the keynote speech at the Tampa Bay Model UN conference at 9 a.m. today at the University of South Florida.
Dominick Tao can be reached at (727) 580-2951 or firstname.lastname@example.org.