When Sarasota Herald-Tribune reporter J. David McSwane came across a woman raising money to start a safe house for local victims of sex trafficking, he was taken aback.
“I thought ‘Is this really going on here?’” he said in an interview. “Sarasota is a pretty affluent community; it just didn’t strike me as something that would be here.”
McSwane would soon realize was that his initial reaction was not uncommon when it came to the hidden truth about human sex trafficking, an issue being ignored by society and law enforcement alike.
“I started talking to police officers, social workers, and really found that this was a big problem in my community and a lot of communities,” he explained. “This was a national story.”
McSwane’s curiosity prompted the Herald-Tribune special report, “The Stolen Ones.” The in-depth investigation details the problem of sex trafficking of minors in Sarasota, which experts say contributes to a rampant underground economy. The report also shares the stories of young victims who find themselves neglected and labeled as child prostitutes by law enforcement.
“I felt like there was a lot of coverage out there that only scratched the surface,” he explained. “There’s also some reticence for legacy media to broach this issue.”
When McSwane first started working on the story in April 2013, he began by contacting experts on the ground: advocates, community members and family members.
“We knew that we needed to tell a human story through characters,” he explained. “So I got in with the people that could be the medium for me to the survivors.”
Once McSwane was connected with those who had been victim to trafficking firsthand, he focused on a more empathetic reporting style.
“It was hitting that balance between I’m a reporter and I need to convey these folks as they are, but I also need to be a human first and not get in the way of their recovery,” he explained.
Much of this relationship-building with the survivors, including Wa-Das “Moe” Crowle who was forced into prostitution at 17-years-old, required forbearance and restraint, McSwane says.
“There were several times when I was working with Moe and I would be there for two minutes and it would be clear that today wasn’t a good day,” he explained. “I needed to know when to back off.”
This patience soon paid off. At a pivotal scene in the story, Moe visits the townhome where she lived with her traffickers; the site of years of abuse, imprisonment and forced sexual slavery.
“She happened to be strong and brave enough to say ‘ I want you to come with us,’” McSwane said of the experience. “That only happened because we had formed this relationship with her; by the end I think we became a part of her recovery.”
Forming connections with the victim’s family members was also crucial to the story’s reporting. McSwane was able to establish a relationship with Moe’s mother Camille Johnson, whom he met while Moe was still serving her 18-month sentence in a juvenile jail.
“If I needed to check in and I couldn’t get to Moe that day because she was having a post traumatic stress episode, I would go talk to mom,” he explained. “I spent as much time as I could with survivors but I also maintained a relationship with those around them to really figure out what’s going on.”
Another integral figure McSwane introduces in the story is FBI agent Greg Christopher, head of the Central Florida Human Trafficking Task Force. Christopher is what McSwane describes as a “victim to his profession,” working fervently to change the outcomes for these victims who are too often disregarded by the justice system.”
“Through his eyes we were able to see the frustrations of law enforcement officers who are trying to do good but the system is slow to catch up,” McSwane said.
Christopher and his team, who have recovered 30 child sex trafficking victims annually, have implemented a new three-part mission when it comes to these cases: recover, comfort, and prosecute.
“He recognized that even though he’s a law enforcement officer, priority number one is to make sure they’re okay.” He said. “That’s the way that humanity should approach the subject.”
While the Central Florida Task force is working towards changing the conversation about human trafficking, there are many smaller jurisdictions and communities that haven’t had this conversation yet. McSwane urges journalists to keep a keen eye open for these untold stories.
“If you’re covering the crime beat and you see that a 15-year-old quote-un-quote prostitute was picked up, you’ve got a story there,” he explained. “That’s not just some kid; that is a victim.”
- Read the special investigation.
- Enroll in McSwane's free, one-hour webinar on contextualizing this issue in your community. Hosted by Poynter's News University.