TAMPA, Fla. — After the arrest of a Hillsborough County detention deputy over an accusation of trying to pay for sex with a minor while off-duty, 10 Tampa Bay spoke with groups across the Tampa Bay region about human trafficking.
Florida ranks No. 3 in the nation when it comes to sex trafficking, according to multiple organizations and state reports.
There is no single demographic or type of person looking to take advantage, said Chris Hardy, a senior analyst of Echo Analytics Group — a veteran-owned and operated intelligence firm based in Tampa.
Those fighting to shut down human traffickers say vulnerable children are groomed at an early age, Hardy said. Her efforts involve finding traffickers online.
"[Traffickers] spend years convincing that girl and alienating her from her family, making her believe that he is the only source of right in her world," Hardy said.
The average age entering sex trafficking is between 12 to 14 years old, according to data provided by Selah Freedom. The Sarasota-based organization works to help eradicate sex trafficking.
The organization stated that 2 million children are sold each year through sex trafficking.
It's common for those being trafficked to be abused as a child. In return, children lose a sense of control and their well-being becomes affected making them vulnerable to traffickers, the organization stated.
For survivors like Kimberly Weller, the abuse started in fourth grade.
With no support from adults, she found drugs as a way to cope and later became involved in sex work to survive, she said. Eventually, Weller said she later experienced homelessness. That's when the sex trafficking began.
"I was met with violence, I was met with torture, and I was met with sexual abuse," Weller said. "It was really traumatic."
Weller said it's been nearly seven years since she received the help she needed from Selah Freedom, where she now serves as a graduate mentor to survivors.
"I remember not knowing who I was," Weller said. "I needed someone to believe in me and being able to have that opportunity is just so rewarding."
Oftentimes, Weller said it's also difficult for those being trafficked to get out of the situation. The manipulation, whether it's financially, romantically or physically tied, can make it tough to seek help.
Weller said she wants the public to know how pervasive the problem is locally and survivors to know resources for help are available.
If you or someone you know needs help, Selah Freedom's intake line is 1-888-8-FREE-ME. The National Human Trafficking Hotline is also 1-888-3737-888.
To get involved with Selah Freedom or find ways to fight sex trafficking, visit this link.