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Child sex trafficking in Arizona: How to spot the warning signs

Posted at 9:41 PM, Nov 13, 2018
and last updated 2018-11-14 00:33:39-05

Sex trafficking and your children is a combination no parent wants to imagine but is a very real threat in the Valley.

The latest numbers from the FBI show in 2017 Arizona was third in the nation for human trafficking offenses and had the highest number of arrests. Experts warn it is impacting people from all walks of life.

"It is anybody. Businessmen, junkies from the street, anybody looking for sex," said an 18-year-old sex trafficking survivor, who spoke to ABC15 on the condition we conceal her identity. "Like 28th (Street) and Indian School, they'd just make you stay in the hotel all day and they would already have customers lined up."

STATISTICS: Sex trafficking in the United States

Like so many survivors, it has been a struggle to rebuild her life after it took a dangerous and almost deadly turn when was just 13.

"I was looking for any love, any affection, anybody to show me attention," she said.

That attention came from a man working at a local convenience store, looking to befriend the recent runaway standing outside.

"He offered to give me some money and then offered me a job after that which, you know, then turned into something else," she said.

She spent the next two-and-a-half years enduring sexual and physical abuse, forced to get high on hard drugs, paralyzed by feelings of worthlessness and fear.

"This was all I'm worth," she said. "Just a piece of body to someone, this is all I'm going to be."

Dominique Roe-Sepowitz is an associate professor with ASU's School of Social Work, which is home to the Office of Sex Trafficking Intervention Research. 

"In Arizona, we think we have about 250 kids a year and about 800 adults a year [involved in sex trafficking]," said Roe-Sepowitz.

She says the true scope of the problem is hard to gauge but adds there is no question traffickers are creative and calculating when targeting their victims.

"If a person is really vulnerable, they're lonely or they're unhappy," she said. "[Potential victims] want things or they need things, that's a great trap."

It happens through social media, in public buildings and parks and even in front of schools.

"They're going to find that child wherever they are," said Roe-Sepowitz, who adds some kids are more vulnerable than others. "Things like poverty, being in the child welfare system, having a parent missing from the home, not having a lot of supervision."

There are, however, certain signs all parents can watch for. Things like missing school, drastic changes in appearance, references to modeling jobs, promiscuous behavior and pricey clothes, accessories or electronics that parents did not purchase and kids could not afford on their own.

"If children are aware that people don't all have good intentions, I think that's a great place to start," said Roe-Sepowitz.

A lesson this survivor wishes she would have learned earlier.

"I thought it was just all movies until it actually happened to me," she said.

There are several agencies working throughout our state to not only rescue victims but to also educate communities and raise awareness about prevention. Click here for more information.