That’s the average age UNICEF reports that girls enter the commercial sex trade in the U.S.
One of the first sex trafficking cases New Hanover County assistant district attorney Lindsey Roberson encountered in Wilmington also started here.
The 17-year-old girl met a guy in a downtown club. The guy wooed her, then “took her out of town on a trip, and let her know what she would have to do to pay her way,” Roberson said. “She had no I.D., no cell phone; no way to contact her mother. And the guy ended up advertising her for sex on Backpage.com and trafficking her all the way out to California and back to Virginia.”
The elemental difference between sex trafficking and freelance prostitution is in who has the control and who is keeping the money, Roberson said. If a girl or a woman is being forced or coerced by a pimp to perform sex acts without monetary gain, that’s trafficking.
Roberson has become a proponent of ways to curb the increase in child sex trafficking cases in the state, speaking at a conference on Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking on Nov. 1 in Fayetteville. In May, she helped start a deferred prosecution pilot program for first time offenders with prostitution charges, partnering with Coastal Horizons Rape Crisis Center in Wilmington.
“In order to stop the trafficking of humans for sexual exploitation, a broad ideological change needs to occur around the buying and selling of human life, particularly women and children,” said Julie Ozier, Rape Crisis Center supervisor. “This pilot program is not focused on prevention per say, but is designed to provide services to victims of sexual exploitation and aid in their recovery from that trauma.”
As a Christian, Roberson is also on the board of a new faith-based effort in Wilmington called the Centre of Redemption, opening in December to help pregnant teens and teen moms who are also trafficking victims.
Increasingly, law enforcement is teaming up with interested faith groups to combat sex trafficking in North Carolina and around the country. Some are calling the faith-based push against human trafficking the newest “Christian abolitionist movement.” In California, an Underground Church Network has formed to help U.S. trafficking victims. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has developed a human trafficking curriculum. And the National Association of Evangelicals’ World Relief told CNN in February that its North Carolina offices had seen a 700 percent rise in reports of human trafficking last year related to an increased awareness of how to spot those situations.
Though state officials don’t know how many sex trafficking victims flow through the state yearly, the N.C. Coalition to Combat Human Trafficking ranks North Carolina in the top 10 states for the problem. North Carolina’s three major highways connect much of the East Coast, and the state has a large transient military population, agricultural roots and ports in the Cape Fear region – all attractive environments for traffickers, Roberson said. In the first half of this year, National Human Trafficking Resource Center records show 240 calls about potential N.C. labor and sex trafficking cases.
In Wilmington, The Centre of Redemption, founded by former local banker MaLisa Johnson, will be funded by grants and local churches as the first boarding school of its kind in the state. There are other homes for sex trafficking victims in Raleigh and Asheville but none just for teen moms, she said.
The Centre will start small, accepting two teens and their children and will expand, Johnson said, adding that the need to help this niche group is stark.
“Traffickers will actually purposefully impregnate a girl to control her and will sometimes sell the child on the black market,” Johnson said.
Girls will be referred to the center from other parts of the country where they left the sex trade because the center can’t admit local teens for safety reasons, Johnson said.
“You don’t want to ever house a girl where she was trafficked because she might see her pimp or be tempted to go back into the life or even see a previous buyer,” she added. The home’s location also will be kept secret for the girls’ protection.
The Centre will contract with local faith-based educators, Life Line Pregnancy Center and Beacon of Hope Counseling for trauma counseling and motherhood options. And female volunteers are being trained from 14 churches in the Cape Fear region to teach life skills.
As the girls age, Johnson plans to open a home for adult women to offer continuous care with the hope of keeping them on a healing path into adulthood.
The Centre is working with local law enforcement, setting up a toll free human trafficking hotline and will collect clothing and personal items for women who are rescued here. It also plans to start a sex trafficking community outreach campaign by the end of September in local hotels and motels to help business owners spot and report it to police.
Johnson, an evangelical Christian who has a degree in psychology, began the effort to organize the center after being laid off when Wells Fargo closed here last year. Her boyfriend was donating to a faith-based organization that helped sex trafficking victims, and she became curious about the problem.
“I couldn’t believe that something like that could be happening here,” Johnson said. “But once I started researching it I became obsessed, and I felt like I should do this. God has just continued to put the right people in my life to make it happen.”
The group has already held volunteer trainings and a series of movie screenings at area churches on how to spot sex trafficking and is planning more.
“Sex trafficking is the worst of rape crisis and domestic violence together,” Johnson said. “Wilmington is a destination city for sex traffickers because of our highways, port and tourism industry. . .Our culture needs to change the way we talk about trafficking from saying ‘that girl’s a prostitute’ to ‘that girl’s being prostituted.’”
To report a possible trafficking situation, call The Safe Place, toll free human trafficking reporting hotline: 855-723-7529