At age 12, Jerome Elam took a bottle of sleeping pills and vodka, laid down in his mother’s rose garden and waited to die. A victim of human trafficking, Elam felt worthless and hopeless.
“It took me taking my own life for me to get noticed,” he said.
Elam, now 54 and president of Trafficking in America Task Force, was one of eight speakers Tuesday night at UF’s second annual Human Trafficking Symposium in Pugh Hall. The event’s goal was to inform the Gainesville community about how widespread human trafficking is, said Logan Leonard, vice president of Gators Against Human Trafficking.
About 50 people attended the event hosted by Gators Against Human Trafficking and the Graham Student Fellows.
Elam said he was molested, used for child pornography and trafficked in a pedophile ring 10 to 12 times a day starting when he was 5 years old. Despite trying to tell 10 people, including his doctor, this abuse lasted for seven years.
After his suicide attempt, Elam said he decided to start helping other victims, especially male and LGBTQ victims.
Leonard said educating the public on human trafficking is important.
“It happens right here in our community and in our state,” the 21-year-old UF economics, history and political science junior said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Frank Williams, another speaker at the event, said Gainesville is not exempt from human trafficking. He’s lived in the city since 1998 and has prosecuted 18 human traffickers in the past three years.
However, Williams said this is just the beginning, as human trafficking is often underreported. But the key to stopping it is to educate the public.
At the event, he said people often have misconceptions about trafficking victims. They are frequently children raised in sexually abusive households who normalize the crime and continue into prostitution as adults.
“There are human beings involved in this with emotions and feelings who don’t elect this life,” Williams said.
Madison Smith, a 21-year-old political science junior, said she attended the event because her mom is involved in anti-human trafficking work, and she wanted to get more involved herself.
At the event, she said hearing the stories of male victims was impactful because previously she only thought about trafficking victims as females. Listening to the stories made her want to get more involved in anti-human trafficking efforts in Gainesville.
“There is a lot of prevention that we as a Student Body can do if we are more aware,” she said.