CLEVELAND— Federal agents and representatives from multiple local law enforcement agencies gathered Monday afternoon in downtown Cleveland at the Justice Center to discuss the growing problem of human trafficking in northern Ohio.
Representatives from several support agencies and victims' advocates also participated in the event.
January is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Awareness Month.
For resources and more information on sex trafficking, visit one of the following websites: Renee Jones Empowerment Center, 20 Ways You Can Help Fight Human Trafficking, Identify and Assist a Trafficking Victim
According to the U.S. State Dept., "between 600,000 and 800,000 people are trafficked across international borders each year, with nearly 20,000 here in the United States."
Young people are being sold into the sex trade at an alarming rate.
FBI agents say it is becoming "epidemic" here in northeast Ohio.
Last year alone, 17 teenaged girls were rescued in the Cleveland area with dozens more saved near Toledo.
"Pimps can be paid $2,000 for a girl to get her on a bus to go to another area of the country," said FBI Special Agent Vicki Anderson.
Two years ago a task force was formed in Cleveland including agents from the FBI, Cleveland Police Department and Cuyahoga County sheriff's department
The task force is one of more than 40 formed across the country.
"Led by the FBI, they've recovered over 1,000 children," said Stephen D. Anthony, special agent in charge of the Cleveland FBI.
They say the problem isn't new but the dangers are worse than ever.
Some of the children are abducted but many are tricked into the lifestyle.
"It could be a girl at a suburban high school a pimp may capitalize on," said Agent Anderson.
The pimps will often pose as a boyfriend and pretend to care for the girl by purchasing gifts.
Once the girls are in the lifestyle it is incredibly difficult to escape.
The girls are put on a bus and sent out of town, away from their family, friends and familiar surroundings.
"You feel stuck and you can't get out," said a girl we'll call Cindy.
Cindy was forced into prostitution at age 16 by a boyfriend.
She says most of the teens are shuttled from city to city and held captive in a hotel room, forced to perform sex acts 10 to 14 times per day.
The pimp will charge $150-$200 per sex act.
However, the girls do not receive any of the money earned. The pimps generally only supply food and shelter for the girls.
If a girl tries to tell someone or getaway, she can face severe consequences.
"They're brainwashed, beaten and treated really poorly," said Agent Anderson. "In one occasion, they actually brought in more friends who gang raped the lady. That's why they don't go to law enforcement."
The girls can be found on websites like Backpage.com, and the Johns come from all walks of life.
Agent Anderson said casinos, sporting events and business conferences are huge draws for teen prostitutes.
"Just one example, when the Cavs were in the playoffs we saw a big increase in prostitution at that time," said Agent Anderson.
To stop this growing epidemic, FBI agents are targeting the Johns and pimps and treating the teens like victims.
"We've seen young girls out there from 14 to 18," said Renee Jones who runs a 501(c)(3) non-profit empowerment center located at 1340 W. 65th Street in Cleveland.
Jones is committed to helping and healing the women once they are free from their pimp.
The average lifespan for a girl in the lifestyle is only 7 to 8 years, because to cope with the daily abuse many turn to drugs and alcohol.
"All of us have been raped," said Cindy. "I've been hit, too."
Even when girls like Cindy are rescued, their recovery can be challenging, because they do not trust anyone.
But Jones hopes she can change that and prevent more girls from becoming victims.
"Prevention is key," said Jones.
Parents are encouraged to talk to their children frequently and pay attention to who their friends are and what they're doing on the Internet.
Agents also want the public to pay attention. If you see a girl who looks like she's in trouble, it's important to report it to law enforcement.
Trafficking violates human rights and is a stand alone felony in Ohio.
FBI agents are also able to bring federal charges against the pimps and Johns.
As for Cindy, she is slowly rebuilding her life but every day is a struggle.
"Because you're used," Cindy explained. "You're not treated like a human being."
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