It’s an uncomfortable issue to discuss, but it’s reality. Tens of thousands of children in Texas are sex slaves.
"We found 29 victims in one year in Corpus Christi," said Cassandra Strom, with New Life Refuge Ministries.
The victims Strom referred to, are children forced to work as prostitutes.
"The youngest was eight years old," explained Strom.
Strom met some of those children at juvenile detention centers. She works with New Life Refuge Ministries, a local non-profit that provides housing and counseling for sex trafficking survivors. Its goal is to end the sex trafficking of children.
"It’s important that we always have hope that nobody is too far gone to be rescued," said Strom.
Strom is also proof that there’s a way out of that life. When she was a child, someone sold her for sex– something that continued as she got older.
"Because of the trafficking that happened when I was a young child, it was so much easier for traffickers to manipulate me when I was in my teens and 20s. I was trapped in that cycle of guilt and shame."
Victims of sex trafficking are sometimes homeless, depressed, anxious and withdrawn.
Read more on warning signs for child sex trafficking, here: https://www.wearethorn.org/blog/risk-warning-signs-for-child-sex-trafficking/
Often, children in that lifestyle don’t know they’re victims. Their traffickers can be controlling and sometimes they’re related to the victim.
Groups like New Life Refuge Ministries work with local churches, the police department and prosecutors to help victims.
A recent study shows those individuals have a lot of work to do. Researchers from the University of Texas found that in Texas, nearly 80,000 children are being sold for sex.
Read more on the study, here: https://news.utexas.edu/2017/01/24/there-are-300000-victims-of-human-trafficking-in-texas
"It’s in big cities, small cities…all you have to do is have the internet, a phone," said Michelle Putman, with the Nueces County District Attorney’s office.
We’ve seen this crime in South Texas. In 2016, Jovan Miles was convicted of human trafficking. He brought a 15-year-old girl to Corpus Christi, advertised her online for sex and set her up with customers at a hotel on SPID.
Last October, Barry Meeks was sentenced to 32 years in prison. His crime was forcing two teen girls from the Rio Grande Valley to sleep with hundreds of men in Corpus Christi.
Putman helped prosecute both Meeks and Miles. She said technology makes it easier for traffickers to exploit children.
The evidence backs her up. The National Center for Missing and Exploited children said of all the reports it gets about online child sex trafficking, three-quarters of those reports involve a website called Backpage. It’s a classifieds website, like www.craigslist.com, where people make arrangements to buy or sell goods or meet up. But people who answer the ads do so at their own risk.
"If you’re buying a child for prostitution… whether you ask or not [about their age, and] it turns out that’s a child, you are also guilty of sexual assault of a child," said Putman.
The people paying for sex rarely get caught. Minta Moore, the Founder and Executive Director of New Life Refuge Ministries said that’s part of the problem.
"This is a supply and demand business, and as long as there are people out there demanding to have sex with children, there will always be people willing to supply it," said Moore.
Moore thinks the public can fight sex trafficking by learning about it. She thinks parents should talk to their children and tell them to be leery of strangers on the internet, since traffickers use social media to recruit victims.
"Tell your kids to trust your gut feeling about that person," said Moore.
Now that she’s received help, Strom is hopeful more kids will be rescued from sex trafficking and finally be safe.
"Start sharing the information that’s available about trafficking. If we really put our money where our mouth is, we can make a difference. We can end this," stated Strom.