WASHINGTON -- Traffickers in the United States exploit more than 100,000 children every year. But even if the victims manage to escape this nightmare, there's often nowhere for them to go. Across the country there is only residential care for about 100 survivors.
The anti-trafficking movement is just beginning in many ways so there's not a clear understanding of the best way to help victims and what's available to them.
That's why Christian ministries, youth organizations and government agencies recently gathered in Washington to define what is available and the best way to help victims.
The conference, sponsored by Shared Hope International, represented a big milestone in the anti-trafficking movement.
"If you think about it, here is a 13, 14, 15-year-old girl and she is being violated 8-10 times a night by a grown man." Mary Frances Bowley, head of the Atlanta-based non-profit Wellspring Living, said.
"Can you imagine what that does to her emotionally, mentally and physically?" she asked.
Bowley and other advocates say comprehensive care is needed to begin to help victims overcome the deep trauma they've endured. At a minimum that means residential care, therapy and education.
Rachel Lloyd has run a shelter in New York for 15 years. She says informed staff is key.
"You need to have staff who are trained and understand the issue," Lloyd said. "You need to have survivors on staff."
"You need to have folks who have had the same experience because girls and young folks are coming in already feeling so ashamed and stigmatized that to be in an environment where there's no one else with their experience is really challenging," she explained.
Those attending the conference say the gathering itself represents a shift because for years the tragedy of trafficking fell under the radar for most Americans.
"Years ago you wouldn't have filled up this room this way and now we're filled up," Carol Smolenski, executive director of ECPAT-USA, said. "It's on webcast and people around the country are really paying attention."
But Lloyd and others also caution the work has just started.
"In the last two years, we've seen an increase and now we're beginning to see people want to develop services, but we still have a really long way to go from awareness to bricks and mortar and programs and services," Lloyd said.
George Sheldon helps to run the Department of Health & Humans Services, a government agency whose mission is protecting children and families. He admits the federal government is late to the cause.
Anti-trafficking advocates say they don't expect much from the feds in this economy. But Sheldon says his agency is moving to develop a response and to help law enforcement.
"If you're going to prosecute a trafficker, you need to have a willing victim who feels safe and secure," Sheldon said.
Creating safety and security for victims is expensive and detailed planning is needed to start up comprehensive services. But advocates say it's worth it because a desperate need exists and thousands of lives are at stake.