Posted: May 20, 2015 3:19 PM EDT
Updated: May 21, 2015 6:09 PM EDT
By Lisa Spooner, Anchor
Most people assume they are women being brought in from other countries. But this is the story of one Southwest Florida woman who was a sex slave for years and was recruited right out of a local middle school.
More often than not the victims of this crime are snatched from their own neighborhoods - from places we often deem safe.
"I wasn't a person anymore. Everything was taken away from me," said "Hope".
"Hope" was 12-years-old when she became the target of human traffickers.
"I hung out with this girl and she claims to be my friend. She invited me over to her so-called cousin's house. Once I entered the house, they would not let me leave," she said.
"Hope" was gang raped; then held at gunpoint and her life was threatened.
"I was so scared and afraid that I never even told anybody," she said.
She was let go with the understanding that she would respond whenever her traffickers had a client.
"I was living at home with my mom and my sister at the time," she said.
A common misconception is that these young girls are kidnapped and sold.
"The most common scenario is that they allow the child to live at home. They operate them right out of the home, unbeknownst to the parents," said Sally Senitz, who is a founder of Wings of Shelter, which is a secret safe house for young girls rescued from sex trafficking.
"They actually were being trafficked after school, on weekends, and during the summer."
Sally and Lowell Senitz founded Wings of Shelter.
Five years ago, the target age was 15. And now the target age is 10 to 12 and they are seeing it lowering to 8-years-old.
They've made it their mission to educate others about the signs of sex trafficking. They warn that the human trafficker's scenario is often to look for three girls together so they can divide one off from the other two as a third wheel.
It used to be that they'd get ten calls a week to take in children - and now they say they are getting ten per day.
Fortunately for "Hope" - her story has a happy ending.
"One day I woke up and I guess, either they were sleeping, or they weren't there or something and I just got up and I left," she said.
Then she moved into the Wings of Shelter.
"They helped me get through a lot that I never thought myself," she said, crying. "They helped me go to school and graduate with honors."
"We love you 'Hope' and want you to know that you've become a strong woman," said Sally Senitz.
The little girl who was robbed of her childhood is now married with a child of her own.
"You need to communicate with your kid. Communicate with them every day. Talk to them. So that they can feel like they can come to you for anything," she said.
Signs of trafficking
It's a $9.5 billion a year industry in the United States -- one that claims some of the most innocent victims.
We spoke with a woman who tracks the signs of human sex trafficking in an unlikely way.
It was a group of nuns that put Kimberly Ritter on the trail of human traffickers. As a conference planner, they asked Ritter to find a hotel for them that had pledged to fight sex trafficking.
That's when Ritter began doing her own research.
"It was quite a shock to us when we realized that we had utilized some of those hotels for our conferences. We could tell what hotel that woman or child was being sold out of," explained Ritter.
Ritter learned about a website that showed pictures of women and children for sale in hotel rooms.
"As I researched the hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of postings daily of people being sold online for sex, I realized that the throw on the bed matched the throw of a hotel I had recently ben in," said Ritter.
Now, Ritter and others travel the country educating hotel management and sharing signs like:
- Paying cash for a room and having no luggage.
- A child not knowing his or her name or not making eye contact.
- A specific room that has a lot of people coming in and out.
"Trafficking is kind of that hidden in plain sight crime," said Detective Andy Henchesmoore with the Collier County Sheriff's Office. "This is the age-old stuff we're dealing with; prostitution and slavery."
Henchesmoore and his partner have rescued girls from five-star hotels to rural farms to homes in the average community.
"There's no geographical boundary when it comes to trafficking," said Henchesmoore. "There's no economic boundary."
With that in mind, Ritter is developing a phone app to fight trafficking. Hotel guests would simply upload pictures of their rooms so officers would have a database of information to use to track down traffickers and their victims.
"Then, they could look at the photo of the victim and bring the most probable hotels that that victim's being sold out of so that the police have stronger evidence. If she's being sold in a different state, hopefully, bring federal charges and possibly rescue sooner," said Ritter.
Ritter and the Exchange Initiative are hoping to have the app completed by the end of the year.
View the original story here.