The pain, horror and suffering as a child — the victim of human trafficking — are memories that Jerome Elam will never escape.
But it is his work, as an adult, as president and CEO of Trafficking in America Task Force, that is his passion.
For seven years, from age 5 to 12, he says he was trafficked in a pedophile ring.
“I’m thankful every day that I’m actually here,” said Elam, 56, married with two children and a resident of Gainesville since 1992. “I am very fortunate that I did survive. As men, it is a difficult time coping with any trauma, and overcoming that took a lot of hard work.”
Elam had an alcoholic, abusive biological father and even darker stepfather, who used him initially for child pornography and eventually introduced him to the pedophile ring.
He said what started to turn his life around was enlisting into the Marines a day after turning 17, calling it his family.
“It helped me begin to recover,” said Elam, a UF graduate who also worked at the university for 20 years in a science lab. “But the real healing point in my life was when I started therapy here. I spent 25 years with a trauma therapist in town, which basically saved my life. It really is by the grace of God that I was able to survive and get through.”
After years of silence after his childhood ordeal, what really drew Elam out to tell his story initially was watching the trial of former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky. The longtime assistant was found guilty in 2012 of 45 charges relating to inappropriate conduct with different boys and sentenced to 30 to 60 years in prison.
“There was something inside me, and I couldn’t stay quiet anymore about this,” Elam said. “I wrote an article entitled “An End To Silence” and got my voice out there. It was originally picked up by the Washington Times.”
The story started spreading to Europe and Africa, and Elam was getting lots of requests to speak in the U.S. as well as internationally.
“I told my story and it helped me break my silence,” he said. “I have been asked to speak and was getting more involved as an advocate.”
Elam wrote a column for the Washington Times for two years, and in 2014, got the attention of Yvonne Williams, who was planning her fourth National Trafficking in American Conference.
“I had on my wish list a male survivor, and I knew statistically that boys were trafficked at an alarming rate, yet none of the NGOs (non-governmental organization) were addressing male victimization,” Williams said. “That is when I came across an article titled, ‘Call Me Collin: The Dairy of a Sex Trafficked Boy,’ by Jerome Elam, trafficked from the age of 5 to 12. My heart sank to a level I couldn’t imagine as I struggled through the words in the article.”
Williams invited Elam to speak at her conference, and they became friends, often appearing on television interviews together. In 2016, she gave the reins of her organization to Elam.
“Jerome has taken the organization to the next level,” she said. “He has been invited to speak across the entire United States and internationally, sharing his story and educating not only the public but legislators, other advocates, political organizations, governors and media, engaging them into this issue. He has been instrumental in getting human trafficking legislation passed locally and nationally.”
The biggest online human trafficking site that Elam helped in bringing down was Backpage.com, which he called “the world’s largest brothel,” in which young girls and boys were often sold.
“I was in Congress talking about how children were being victimized, how backpage was allowing this to happen,” Elam said. “I was very happy to get an amendment passed that brought it down. That’s a $117 billion-a-year organization. Backpage.com was a scourge on humanity.”
Elam said parents must be alert with their kids when they are on computers, because a lot of traffickers work through chat rooms, trying to “groom” their next victim.
“I’ve never seen passion — genuine passion — for ending a social ill in anyone,” Williams said of Elam. “It is popular today to become involved in various aspects of this issue, yet not all advocates have the heart and passion that I have seen in Jerome. Jerome Elam has walked in the shoes of trafficking victim, to victor, and now to voice. He is authentic and he is determined.”
Elam said he wants everyone to be aware and on guard for trafficking that occurs every day in Florida.
The state is third in the country for human trafficking behind California and Texas, much of it concentrated in the Tampa area.
The worst of online trafficking occurs on the dark web, he said.
“A lot of kids are sold on the dark web right now,” Elam said. “With the internet, anybody is vulnerable to being trafficked.”