LAKE COUNTY, Fla. — The United States is once again ranked as one of the worst countries in the world for human trafficking.
According to law enforcement, Central Florida is a hotbed for this kind of modern-day slavery. And to make matters worse, victims are getting younger and younger, with pimps now recruiting elementary school-age children.
For most children, Central Florida is about the Space Coast launches, fun at the beach and theme park thrills. But human trafficking survivor Savannah Parvu, who was 11 years old when she was sold for sex, knows a much darker side.
Parvu was human trafficked by a family member.
"I grew up in Central Florida,” Parvu said. “She would take me with her to prostitute herself. Her drug dealer offered her $10 for me instead of her. And she said, ‘That's fine, do whatever you want.’"
Parvu said. “It would all happen at his house or at hotels."
Human trafficking statistics in the U.S. rank Florida as the third worst state behind California and Texas.
Crystal Blanton is a victims' advocate with Marion County's Human Trafficking Task Force. She says victims are getting younger and younger.
“It's a definite problem,” Blanton said. “’Some of our youngest victims have been 9. So anywhere from 9 on up."
According to a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services report, more than 300,000 American children are at risk for sexual exploitation. It's also estimated 199,000 incidents occur in the U.S. every year.
Blanton said pimps commonly use Central Florida's kid-friendly attractions to lure in children.
“Sometimes they are being recruited by other children," Blanton said.
It's happening at parks, malls and schools. Ocala police are even placing posters around campuses to educate students about the dangers.
According to law enforcement, the most powerful tool pimps use to recruit children are likely in your child's hands right now.
Smartphones give kids quick access to social media, email, texts and chat rooms used to recruit.
"You honestly can't start too young for looking for signs and being aware of what our children are doing specifically online, because that is a gateway for traffickers," Blanton said. “If you see something, say something."
Parvu's been saying a lot.
She's made several trips to Tallahassee pushing for a bill that would be require training for hotel workers to better spot human trafficking and potentially save lives.
Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the bill a couple weeks ago.
"I feel like if it would've helped me. It will help other people now," Parvu said.
Cox Media Group