(WVEC) -- Across America, children are being trafficked for sex every day.
Often times these issues seem like they happen far away in bigger cities or foreign countries, but a 13News Now investigation revealed right here in Hampton Roads, traffickers are selling girls.
“People are still under the assumption that this doesn't happen here, that it can't happen to them,” explained one sex-trafficking survivor.
For her safety, she's asked us to use the fake name Lisa and hide her identity.
“It could happen to anybody, anywhere,” she said.
Lisa’s story begins at 15, when she met a man who promised he could make her a big star.
“I was hooked,” she remembered. “He sold me this dream that we were going to go to New York.”
The promises lured her into a life of sex-trafficking no one would willingly choose. Throughout her years in the city, Lisa was charged with prostitution about 170 times. She endured endless abuse.
“Busted lip, I've been stabbed with an icepick,” she lamented. “I've had my foot broken. I've been burned.”
But it was the mental abuse, the control this man exercised over her life, that she remembers the most. It is how he and other traffickers "break" victims into submission.
“It's the most degrading, disgusting, shameful, embarrassing experience anyone could go through and you live it day in and you live it day out,” Lisa grieved.
Eventually, Lisa was able to escape here to Virginia, but it wasn't until a church meeting with the Virginia Beach Justice Initiative, that she realized she was a victim.
“It was unbelievable,” she recalled. “It was like 'ok, so this is not my fault. I'm not dirty. I'm not a prostitute.’”
Lisa confessed her story to Patrick McKenna, president and co-founder of the Initiative. The group raises awareness, comes up with prevention strategies and intervenes to save trafficking victims here in Hampton Roads.
“I liken them to domestic violence victims on steroids,” McKenna explained.
He said our area offers a prime background for trafficking because it has two airports, a large port, access to the interstates and a transient population.
It's hard to get a handle on exactly how widespread the problem is here. 13News Now made the same request for statistics from several local police departments and court clerks, but many responded in different manners. Also, different jurisdictions pursue different charges for similar crimes.
Advocates are now pleading for changes to state code. Under federal law, anyone trafficked under the age of 18, the age of consent, is legally considered a victim automatically. In Virginia, that's not the case. Many child victims here are charged with prostitution and put in jail.
“From a law enforcement perspective and this is usually their concern, that if we don't have a way to keep these young people safe, to put them in a place where they can't run for a little bit, to kind of break the trauma bond or try to get a separation there, that they're going to run back into that situation,” McKenna described.
Many hope, at some point, Virginia's survivors could also have the potential to get their criminal records expunged.
Last January, years after Lisa escaped her trafficker, she was able to get those 170 prostitution charges in New York erased from her record. She now works with the anti-trafficking nonprofit organization, Kaleidoscope International.
Lisa got her life back and she's hoping this story will help other children facing the same trauma.
“I want them to know they're not alone,” Lisa added. “It's not their fault. There's life after this.”
State numbers show Virginia had the 15th highest number of trafficking cases reported to the national hotline last year. If you or someone you know is a victim, you can call to get help at 1-888-373-7888.
For our full series 'Selling Girls' click here.
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