TOLEDO, Ohio -- For years, Americans have watched international reports of human trafficking thinking it couldn't happen here. But now, researchers are finding more and more domestic cases and not just in the big cities or the border states. They're in the heartland.
Shared Hope International, a Christian anti-trafficking organization, reports that up to 300,000 children in the U.S. are at risk for trafficking each year. Twelve years old is the average age of entry.
"Men are buying younger children," Shared Hope founder and former congresswoman Linda Smith said. "They're buying more violent acts with the children and those children aren't willingly saying 'I want to be prostituted.' Now we're seeing 9, 10, 11-year-olds. Eleven years old is common--snatched from a middle school, lured through a mall or online."
Traffickers are kidnapping or luring these children from all kinds of communities. Ohio is just one place where it's surfacing.
Dr. Celia Williamson at the University of Toledo authored a recent report for Ohio's Attorney General Richard Cordray. The report estimates more than 1,000 Ohio children are trafficked each year.
Toledo is one city where trafficking is well documented. Williamson's report ranks it number four in the U.S. in terms of the number of arrests, investigations and rescues of child trafficking victims. But per capita, Toledo leads the nation.
"Toledo is an origin city," Williamson explained. "The kids are recruited here and they're shipped across the country, so when the FBI rescues kids they may find Toledo kids in Las Vegas and Atlanta, Pennsylvania, and California."
Innocence Lost Task Force
In 2003, the FBI, Department of Justice, and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children launched anti-trafficking "Innocence Lost" task forces around the country. Since then, 34 task forces and working groups have been started.
Toledo became a focus after a 2006 raid on a Pennsylvania truck stop. Almost half of the 150 victims were from Toledo. Seventeen of the 18 traffickers also called the city home.
So, why Toledo? "I don't necessarily think there's more here. I just think we're doing a better job of identifying and attacking the problem here," FBI special agent Dave Dustin said. "It's a common sentiment among law enforcement in Toledo."
To the untrained eye, however, trafficking is often hard to see. The general public can easily tune out hot spots like strip clubs, motels, and truck stops. And most would never think of events like the Super Bowl as major trafficking destinations.
But the FBI says traffickers flock to big games and conventions where they know they'll find an easy market.
"You're not going to see kids out on the street in everyday America because those are more likely to be the recruitment areas," Williamson said. "Those are the areas where our kids are at risk for being recruited and then shipped around the country."
A Country in Denial
That lack of visibility tends to discourage public awareness.
"There's a sense of denial among the general community about human trafficking," Cordray, who leads the state trafficking commission, said. "There's a desire to believe it's an international problem but not an American problem."
Almost a year into its work, Cordray's commission has more questions than answers. One question: Just why has Toledo become such a trafficking hub?
Some possible reasons include its proximity to Canada and crossroads status. Major interstates flank the small, working-class city. Also, many families struggle financially, which puts their children at greater risk. Sadly, there's also a generational issue.
"We're seeing a lot of cases, especially with the pimps, where the pimp's father was a pimp or the pimp's mother was a prostitute," Dustin said.
Life After the Sex Trade
Another question: How to help the children once they're rescued.
"Right now what happens in our country is that a kid is involved in the sex trade, traumatized by her traffickers, rescued and handcuffed by law enforcement and put in detention centers across the U.S." Williamson said.
"Most of the girls have no self-esteem," said Jennifer Meyers, an FBI victim specialist.
For most victims of trafficking, life once they get off the streets is tremendously difficult, and home is often not a safe place to go. That's why a group of Christians in Ohio is about to open Gracehaven, a rehab home for survivors.
Gracehaven's first employee, Teresa Flores, is herself a survivor. Having escaped in high school she now understands the mind games traffickers play and why it's so hard to get out.
"Once you're broken, which is usually through rape, gang rape -- things like that -- then they come back and tell you they love you and that if you love them you'll do this for them," Flores explained.
Breaking New Ground
When it opens later this year, Gracehaven will break new ground. Not literally, but nationally. No other Christian-based shelter like it exists.
Gracehaven founder Dr. Jeffrey Barrows is also helping to oversee four similar up-and-coming ministries across the country through the newly formed Christian Trafficking Shelter Association.
"There's just been a larger uprising, especially in the faith-based community, of people realizing 'Hey, wait a minute. This is going on all around us and we need to rise up and do something about it,'" Barrows said.
That's the challenge - what to do.
Gracehaven will provide residents 24/7 care for a minimum of nine months. It will offer individual counseling and training in life skills. But there's a price to pay for breaking new ground. There is next to no research to help develop curriculum, education, and programming. Little has been done to understand the best way to rehabilitate the victims of trafficking.
Flores explained the mindset of many victims.
"You know this is wrong. You know you don't want to do this -- nobody does," she said. "But you don't know anyway out, like you don't have any other options. You feel like there is nobody who would understand you."
But Flores now has a vision for where she wants to take these precious survivors who have endured such severe trauma.
"They have to understand that that was just one piece of the puzzle, one part of them," she said. "We have to teach them, 'You're more than that....and God loves you.'"
At stake: Lives that hang in the balance, children torn from the streets of middle America and plunged into darkness.
But now, with growing awareness and the outreach of faith, there's more hope than ever.
*Original broadcast March 13, 2010.