The COVID-19 pandemic increased the number of people at risk for human trafficking as traffickers took advantage of the social and economic crisis.
As schools return, authorities are concerned the numbers are actually higher than first thought.
As a teenager, Alinta Smiley faced mental anguish. She faced poverty. Her mother was in prison and her father signed away his custody. At 14-year-old, the streets became her home.
She bounced from house to house, sometimes without a roof over her head. One person she vividly remembers is her friend Brandy.
“So, I was excited because that a friend with a car, you know, she was older,” Smiley recalled. “So, it started with her doing these invitations. I started with her just telling me to just kind of come along with her. She would have sex for money.”
Smiley had a “boyfriend” that collected the money that was given to them.
“She was recruiting. He was making the money,” Smiley said.
She learned they didn’t have a real friendship when she said no to a road trip with Brandy.
“When I didn't do the Lake of the Ozarks trip, I never heard from her again. She didn't call me. There was nothing. As I look back, she was recruiting,” Smiley remembered.
In and out of homes, at one point, Smiley says she almost considered ending her life.
“I couldn't quite just. I remember crying and I remember God saying that he had a plan for me. Ever since then, that was a turning point where I said I needed to find help,” she said.
The police immediately put her in touch with Crisis Aid International.
Cindy Malott is the director of advocacy services with the organization. They help place young girls in safe homes all over the country.
Then, shelter-in-place orders opened the door for internet predators. Crisis cases to the National Human Trafficking Hotline increased nationally by more than 40 percent.
Malott says COVID-19 has also forced some to return to a society they tried so hard to escape.
“The vast majority of them were reliant on service industry jobs, restaurant jobs. Suddenly, most of that was taken away. So, the only thing you know to survive is dangerous and could take your life,” said Malott.
Aid groups have turned to some of the people they know well, people they’ve helped in the past. People like, Smiley.
Smiley has since graduated with a master’s degree in social work. She says so many are scared to talk. She hopes to be the voice for people who are still sitting quietly in the corner because they're scared or because they're embarrassed or because they think nobody will believe them.
She says that’s who she’s speaking for.