ORLANDO, Fla. - Central Florida may be known as a family-friendly destination, but 9 Investigates has continued to monitor one of the area's darkest underworlds -- child sex trafficking.
In February, the Department of Children and Families noticed a 55 percent increase in trafficking cases and more recently, Channel 9 has explored the reasons why the sex trade has grown in central Florida with its influx of tourists, business travelers and conventions.
Since then, Channel 9's Tim Barber has looked at how local law enforcement is catching traffickers and studied the arrests to see if their efforts are working. He also examined how the victims are being helped on the local level.
Barber found that this year the number of sex trafficking investigations is expected to double. Pimps enslave women and girls as young as age 8, forcing them into
prostitution, a heartbreaking life Jesse Maley has lived.
"There was no one I could trust and I had absolutely no hope," said Maley, a trafficking and sex trade survivor, who now works to help others trapped in the same situation.
Since Channel 9 first reported on sex trafficking in February, local law enforcement and social agencies started a task force to tackle the problem.
Just six months into the year, the Metropolitan Bureau of Investigation is working on its seventh sex trafficking arrest.
That's the same number of trafficking suspects agents took down all of last year, and officials said they are just scratching the surface.
MBI Director Larry Zwieg said his agency now has three agents dedicated to human trafficking, and the office is getting more and more tips because people are learning about the problem.
"We have more ability to address these tips that we are getting," Zwieg told Barber.
Dr. Monica Mendez is also on the task force. Her charity helps girls escape the sex trade and protects them from pimps.
"You have to have a system that is full of people who are patient and non-judgmental," said Mendez, CEO of
Mendez told Barber that central Florida needs a facility on South Orange Blossom Trail where the girls can find refuge from the sex trade. The area is a hot spot for trafficking because they are sold to people in nearby motels.
"The tourists, the fact that we have a lot of events here, it creates kind of a perfect storm for these types of events to happen," Mendez said.
Maley pulled herself out of the sex trade years ago. She now runs her own charity to help girls caught up in the same desperate situation, but it's not an easy life to leave. She has tried to help roughly 130 women, but only 18 of them have escaped.
She said she is encouraged by law enforcement's progress but knows it's a fight the police cannot win alone.
"Absolutely I think it's something that we can tackle, but it's going to take the full community," Maley said.