ORLANDO, Fla. - 9 Investigates found a little-known secret is becoming a big problem in central Florida: young girls are being forced into prostitution for money, while others are being sold for sex.
Channel 9's Vanessa Welch talked to
a victim who was trafficked into the United States as a young girl to be used in the sex trade.
9 Investigates also rode along with undercover agents to find out what law enforcement is doing to rescue these girls from Orlando's streets and get them help.
Undercover Metropolitan Bureau of Investigation, or MBI, agents gave Channel 9 special access one night last week as they searched websites advertising escort services.
The agents focus on girls who appear underage, and set up "dates" with them at local hotels.
9 Investigates' cameras rolled as the agents descended on a South Orange Blossom Trail motel. One woman, who was 19 and pregnant, was arrested on a prostitution charge and hauled off to jail.
"She is an adult. She is doing this on her own
free will ," said MBI Director Larry Zwieg.
But that's not always the case. Local girls as young as 8 years old have been forced into prostitution.
Zwieg said men visiting Orlando's conventions, attractions and sporting events generate a big demand for young prostitutes, and his team works overtime to identify and rescue the minors.
An ad on Backpage.com led agents to another young woman, turning tricks at an International Drive hotel. It turned out she was 18, so she, too, was arrested. Had she been a year younger, she would have been turned over to the Department of Children and Families to get help.
Central Florida has a growing child sex trafficking problem, with DCF handling 157 cases last year, a 55 percent increase over the prior year's total.
Pimps enslave the young girls, who are often runaways, officials said.
"They are taking all of the money and just providing food and clothing and barely that to the person they have hooked into this," Zwieg said.
Kathy, now 17,
was trafficked as a child and nearly caught up in the child sex trade. She agreed to speak with 9 Investigates on the condition that she not be fully identified.
Kathy was 11 when her mother left her with friends in Honduras to find work in the U.S., but Kathy was sold to human traffickers and brought to the states. She is now living in Orange County, and was still too scared to show her face to Channel 9's cameras.
"I could have been a sex slave for money and put out there like hot meat," she said.
Traffickers planned to re-sell her for $10,000 or force her into the sex trade.
Kathy said she remembers only bits and pieces of her experiences during that period of her life.
"They put me into a room with about 20 people," she said. "Men, really old men, would come in and look around."
Before Kathy was sold for sex, FBI agents rescued her and other young girls.
But not everyone caught up in sex trafficking industry is so lucky.
"These girls are scared to leave," said missing child specialist Sue Abol
Housin with DCF. "They are given a quota. It could be 10 tricks a day."
Housin said she has seen the dramatic climb in local child sex trafficking cases.
"It's a very big problem. I don't think people realize it's a big as it is," she said.
Experts said the problem won't go away soon with so much cash at stake. Young girls in central Florida can help their pimps rake in thousands of dollars a day.
For those who are fortunate enough to escape, the fear lingers.
"I'm just scared they could track me down and kill me," Kathy said.