VIRGINIA BEACH- Tanya Street never imagined she would be trafficked for sex. She remembers just graduating from high school and feeling vulnerable. "At this time in my life I had lost all contact with family and friends."
That's when she started dating an older man who eventually asked her to sell her body for sex. At first she was hesitant, but she ended up saying yes. "I said I love you, and I want to prove to you how much I love you."
Her story is one of many, according to the child sex trafficking organization, the Polaris Project. An estimated 240,000 kids in the US are considered at risk of sexual exploitation, and the victims are overwhelmingly girls.
Since 2007, there were 2,478 calls to a hotline for child sex trafficking in Virginia. That makes the commonwealth one of the highest in the nation for these crisis calls. "They want to be sure when they talk to you that they're safe disclosing what's going on," Patrick McKenna said.
Husband and wife, Patrick and Lori McKenna started a sex trafficking awareness group in Virginia Beach. They believe many times victims don't report the crimes to police. "A lot of them are afraid, they're threatened that someone will go after their families or come after them."
In 2003, the FBI created the Innocence Lost National Initiative to target child sex trafficking.
Since then, they've convicted more than 1,300 pimps, and they've rescued more than 2,700 children.
Authorities explained many young teens who end up in prostitution are first chatted with online, groomed to trust a stranger, and then meet their new “friend” in shopping malls where they are lured to run away.
Earlier this year, the FBI used the website backpage.com to help gather evidence in 70 cities to rescue 105 teenagers from prostitution. The National Association of Attorneys General is fighting to change federal law so that websites like backpage.com could be prosecuted for promoting child sex trafficking. Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring is supporting that effort. "It is a priority to prosecute and put away those who engage in human trafficking, especially of children," he said.
If you search Virginia Beach on backpage.com, you'll see hundreds of sex ads, and authorities say often times it says the woman is 19, but she's actually a child.
Example of classified ads on backpage.com as of 5/19/2014:
"If you look and see something like 'we're back', or 'we'll be here for a few days' it generally means they're on a circuit and they're moving to escape exposure," McKenna noted.
After similar pressure was put on Craigslist, the company voluntarily banned sex ads in 2010. However, new websites are constantly popping up. "I know there are so many women and men who didn't get out. I’m really fortunate to be sitting here with you today to say I got out," Street remarked.
After a year and a half of prostitution, Street said she found unexpected strength when a police officer stopped her. "He said if you come with me, I will pay for you to get on a bus. You can get your son, and go home." She did go home, and found healing. Now Street is sharing her story to create awareness. "I think that if people were more open on how they're feeling who they are, then we wouldn't seem to isolated."
The National Human Trafficking Resource Center has a toll-free, 24-hour hotline to report child sex trafficking, 1-888-373-7888 or text to BeFree (233733).