By Sean Callebs, CNN
She asked not to be identified. Her first name is Melissa. A victim who beat the odds.
“I thought I would be dead. I never thought I would live to be 22 or 24-years-old,” says Melissa. Her story begins when she was 17, living with another runaway, she says a pimp promised them a better life.
“He started to pay our rent. Pay our bills. Make sure that we had food in our house.” But he also – literally overnight – forced Melissa to trade sex in exchange, she tells us.
“Within a day, my whole life changed. I had to sleep with people. He would tell me where I had to be and when I had to be there.”
Human rights advocates tell us that right now there are about 25,000 young women in the United States who have been forced into sex trafficking. Along with the horror stories we hear of women brought into the U.S. from Asia, Latin America, and Europe, advocates tell us many of the young women forced into sex trafficking are runaways from right here in the United States.
Melissa’s story fits the profile. Trying to escape a broken home, she says she was sexually abused at young age. Pimps prey on women like her.
“It's a problem that's happening right here and it's happening to people’s daughters, nieces, nephews, and grandchildren. And it's plaguing every community in the United States,” says Luis CdeBaca, U.S. ambassador-at-large to fight human trafficking. He says it's time for the U.S. to step up its crackdown on sex trafficking with more aggressive investigations and prosecutions.
“For the first time now we have a combination of actors both at the federal and state level who are really clicking on this. We've got state laws that are being passed. We've got training that's being done by the Sheriff's Association, and the International Association.”
So why not just run to the police or escape? Melissa says she was stopped cold by fear, and the sad resignation this was her life.
“I was too scared to leave or to go anywhere. I had no money. I had nothing. I mean they were all that I had.”
“It's the same story over and over,” says Assistant U.S. Attorney Susan Coppedge, who has made a career cracking down on the sex trafficking of minors. “The pimps almost have a handbook, the traffickers, as to how to catch a girl is the term. They will try this on 10 or 20 girls and only maybe get one that will fall for it, but it's that one who becomes the victim of sex trafficking.”
Melissa says it was an arrest for a traffic violation that eventually saved her life. The FBI convinced her to testify against her pimp and enter rehab for nine months, for therapy and drug addiction.
She's now married and hopes to start a family, something she once could not have imagined.
“All it does is take one person who actually does care and have pure motives – and give you everything that they were taught.”