Friday marks national Human Trafficking Awareness Day and President Obama has designated January the "National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month."
"There’s an estimated 1 million human trafficking victims—from a 12-year-old girl in the sex trade to a 60-year-old man working for no pay—on U.S. soil," said Mark Blackwell, president of Justice Ministries, a nonprofit organization focused on rescuing and healing sex trafficking victims.
Blackwell dedicated his life to this cause at the Christian Passion Conference in 2010.
"When I learned that there was a 12-year-old girl being raped and sold for sex in my city—nothing else seemed that important," he said. "I felt like the Lord was calling me to go to victims."
Justice Ministries provides housing for victims in the Carolinas. Blackwell said it serves about a hundred people per year.
Linda Smith, a former Republican congresswoman from Washington state and founding president of Shared Hope International, a 501(c)(3) dedicated to fighting sex trafficking and slavery, said that a conservative estimate of the number of underage children in the sex trade is around 100,000.
"I can go into any city, go online, and go shopping. … The average age of entry was about 13 when they were first trafficked," Smith said.
According to its website, Shared Hope aims to prevent human trafficking, restore the victims, and bring justice through the legal system.
Chosen, a documentary to be released in March by Shared Hope, will tell the story of two normal American teens who were tricked into trafficking over a period of months.
The template described in the documentary is simple. An older man approaches a teenage girl, flirts with her, makes her feel mature, and builds a relationship. The girl’s friends congratulate her on her older boyfriend. He asks her to do something dirty one day—to help him out. Then he scares her, saying the police will arrest her for prostitution and threatening to abuse her younger sister if she refuses.
She finds herself with nowhere to turn.
"Most girls like them would never have been trafficked—if they can identify the signs," Smith said.
Those signs also appear in Renting Lacy: A Story Of America’s Prostituted Children, a novel based on the stories of 12 victims. Smith presented it as a resource for education in the meantime.
Shared Hope aims to "align the child as a victim of crime instead of a perpetrator." The law punishes these girls as child prostitutes despite the coercion of their pimps.
Shared Hope lists on its website numerous legal reforms to fix this problem and Smith called for citizens to promote them on the state and local levels.
"None of us would say a person raped should go to jail," Smith said.
Nevertheless, Smith does not hold American culture guiltless. "We’re all responsible for this because of the growth of pornography, the growth of sexualization," she said.