SARASOTA, Fla.- The month of January is National Human Trafficking Prevention month, and it's a subject many are just staring to learn about. Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi is fighting to end modern day slavery in our state.
Many think this industry of human sex trafficking only happens outside of the U.S., but it's happening right here in our own backyard. Nationally, the state of Florida ranks 3rd, with the Tampa region, which includes the Suncoast, at number 2 next to Miami.
"Over 2 million people in our country are being trafficked alone; it's unreal," says Pam Bondi, Florida Attorney General.
Attorney General Bondi visited the Suncoast Friday afternoon to educate the community on her campaign to make Florida a zero-tolerance state for human trafficking.
"It's modern day slavery. The majority of the kids, and they're kids are between 12 and 14 years old, and it's the sex trade, it's horrible,” Bondi.
Human trafficking is the sexual exploitation or forced labor of victims through force, fraud or coercion, mostly women and children.
"I really thought this was a third world issue, and I'm born and raised in Florida. I'm from Miami Dade county. I did not think that this was so pervasive in our community,” says Rachael Ferguson-Brown.
Selah Freedom, a safe-house for women who have escaped slavery, opened their doors on the Suncoast in November of 2013. Their mission, to bring awareness and provide a safe place for survivors to heal.
"Everyone that we've worked with has been a child that's been sexually abused by someone they know; someone that's supposed to trust them and be a covering,” says Elizabeth Fisher, President of Selah Freedom.
Most times, the girls Selah Freedom works with have left their abusive homes with no where to go and end up being trafficked.
"Statistically now, we know that within 48 hours, 80% of runaways are coerced into some form of the sex trade,” says Fisher.
Predators are known to seek out their victims at places like bus terminals, targeting the vulnerable, disguised as someone offering food or shelter.
"Many times these young girls are taken to truck stops, convenience stores, because often times the young girls can only get out of the car to go to the restroom. The motel and hotel industry.. they're helping us as well,” says Bondi.
Connie Rose is a survivor after facing 14 years of incest and 4 years of sex trafficking by her father; today she is changing lives as a director for Selah Freedom.
"This is what people need to understand because there's a lot of alcohol, drug addiction that's connected because that's what your pimp does as another control; so it's a lifelong journey."
Attorney General Bondi says safe-houses to save and rehabilitate the victims of human trafficking are her top priority.
She also says fighting this is a team effort with the community and law enforcement, and she is working with the Florida Legislature to pass tough new laws. Bondi also has resources available online for businesses and for parents to help identify and prevent trafficking.