BREVARD COUNTY, Fla. - Channel 9 has done several stories about central Florida’s growing human sex trafficking problem. Now, for the first time, a local teenager shares the secrets of how the ring operates.
The girl was recruited at a local mall when she was 15, telling Channel 's Vanessa Welch how easy it was to get trapped in a lifestyle that is almost impossible to escape.
She was hanging out at a Brevard County mall when she met at guy who asked for her number. He started talking to her and telling her she was pretty. We'll call her Katie.
She thought he just wanted to be her boyfriend.
Katie told us, "He came over to my house and picked me up and brought me to his house.”
“He would bring me alcohol and drugs," she explained.
He also gave her love and attention, things she didn’t get at home.
Katie dropped out of school and moved out of her grandmother’s home. But then he started passing her onto other men.
“He pretty much just kept me in his room and all I did was sit in bed and wait for another client to come in,” Katie said.
She also said that she made $2,000 some nights. But she never saw a dime and she never tried to leave.
"I would have been beaten really badly,” said Katie.
She felt trapped. She explained, “It’s all a mind game. He would tell me, 'If you get another girl, you don’t have to work as hard.'”
So Katie used social media to recruit other teenagers one at a time.
“We linked up on Facebook and I had her come over and she started working," Katie said. "Most of it was me talking to girls on Facebook."
Then those girls would recruit their friends from high school.
“It’s really hard once you are in to get out,” she said.
Katie finally escaped with the help of a local pastor who received her name from the Department of Children and Families. Now she wants to help other girls escape.
Many of the girls caught up in the human trafficking industry end up at the Juvenile Assessment Center after being arrested. They're not brought in for prostitution, but for theft and drug-related charges.
Officials typically conduct a risk assessment to see how likely it is that a child will reoffend. But now the Assessment Center is also having its staff ask a list of questions to see if the child
is a victim of human trafficking.
Experts ask questions such as: How do you support yourself or are you in control of your money?
The list of questions is lengthy but it is working. The head of the Orange County Juvenile Assessment Center told 9 Investigates that at least twice a week the assessment helps them identify a child who is a victim of human trafficking.
Instead of being punished, those teens are getting the help they need from DCF to leave.
Katie hopes her story gives other girls courage.
Counselors and a local pastor have helped her turn her life around. Katie is enrolled in college and wants to be a lawyer.
And she has a message for parents: “Check on your kids, where they are, what they are doing.”
"It is really happening," she said. "Every day someone is getting recruited."
A recent study showed one out of every 12 teens who was given the assessment was a victim of human trafficking. DCF told Welch that local teens of every race and background are being recruited.
The experts said parents need to monitor who their children talk to online. They should also be on the lookout for suspicious tattoos because pimps often brand their girls with tattoos.