According to the Department of Health and Human Services, human trafficking happens in every U.S. state, and it disproportionately affects women and girls.
TANJA BABICH: According to the Department of Health and Human Services, human trafficking happens in every US state. Half of all victims are under 18, and most are girls and women.
I spoke with one local teen who is working with an area nonprofit to overcome the unthinkable.
- I was with my friends having fun one minute, and then I woke up and I was in a completely different state.
TANJA BABICH: She had blacked out in Chicago and woke up halfway across the country. Then 16 years old, this woman, whose name we aren't using, was zip-tied in the back of a car driven by a 37-year-old stranger.
- He made it very clear what was coming next, where we were going, and what I was meant to do.
TANJA BABICH: The teen is a survivor of human trafficking. According to one human rights organization, this form of slavery has surged during the pandemic.
COVID has amplified our dependency on the internet, making us, and especially children, more vulnerable to its darkest corners.
WESLEY TAGTMEYER: Any time that we have more potential victims online, unsupervised, and we have potential offenders online, that can cause problems.
- First thing that I want to ask you, before I ask you anything else, are you safe?
TANJA BABICH: Reclaim 13 is a west suburban nonprofit that helps to rescue and rehabilitate survivors of sexual exploitation. Cassandra Ma is its executive director.
Since the start of the pandemic, have you seen an increase in the number of calls to your hotline?
CASSANDRA MA: Yeah we've had almost a doubling of the calls to our hotline.
- Just sit tight don't hang up.
TANJA BABICH: When someone reaches out to the organization, priority one is to remove them from danger. What comes next is much harder.
CASSANDRA MA: Moving and healing kids from this trauma is very, very difficult.
TANJA BABICH: The abuse they've suffered is unimaginable.
- They paid money to hurt me and beat me and torture me.
TANJA BABICH: Drugs helped to insulate her from the pain, until she was able to escape. She was flown home to Chicago and into the waiting arms of the staff at Reclaim 13.
- That's perfect.
TANJA BABICH: Much of the work they do is in recalibrating a child's understanding of what a relationship is. It's supposed to be fun. Mentors offer positive interactions that might feel foreign to a child who has been exploited.
CASSANDRA MA: The more different experiences children have, the more able they are to be able to see the red flags when they come in relationships.
TANJA BABICH: That mentorship, a safe shelter, and therapy helped to soften this survivor's re-entry to freedom and gave her perspective she now hopes to share with others.
- Just don't put yourself more at risk than you need to be, because you're already at risk just walking out of your door.
TANJA BABICH: The takeaway message here is don't be scared, be informed. We have some really helpful tips on how to keep yourself and your children safe at ABC7Chicago.com.