BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) - According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) 100,000 American children are bought and sold every year in the U.S. The average age of the victim is 13 years old.
The FBI said the biggest challenge in stopping human trafficking is getting people to realize it exists.
These victims are in plain sight. You see them at conventions, sporting events or on the streets.
Traffickers often target middle and high school students and runaways and children from abusive homes are at an even greater risk. They're lurking around our schools, our malls, our parks. Human traffickers looking for young girls they can manipulate, usually using a lover boy style technique, making the girls feel safe, wanted, with promises of fulfilled dreams.
Then one day the tables turn and that young girl is in a world she can't get out of.
"Physically she could have left, psychologically she could not, that was my situation," Tajuan McCarty, a victim of human trafficking, said.
McCarty ran away from home at 12 and then again at 15. It was then that she met a pimp in Birmingham. She knew he was a pimp with four other girls living in the house, but at 15 she didn't really know what she was getting into.
"I thought he loved me more than he did them. He wasn't making me do what they did. Two of them working streets, two working adult entertainment or strip clubs, whatever you want to call it. He had me selling drugs, so I was different until one night he sends me out and the quota I have to make, because we all have to make our quota to support the family, on this particular night there were not enough drugs for me to meet the quota so I knew the tables had turned," said McCarty.
For years, McCarty ran the circuit. She said she's been sold in every state except Alaska and Hawaii. She eventually turned to drugs.
"After getting raped 30 times a day you're going to get high on something to just emotionally cope with it," said McCarty.
McCarty saw no way out with no one to turn to. It's a story Linda Smith, Founder of Shared Hope International, is all too familiar with. She came to Montgomery earlier this month with a powerful message.
"Clean up your laws,” said Smith.
A few years ago, Alabama did make significant changes to the law that goes after human traffickers but there have been very few prosecuted cases. And we have no real penalties for the buyer, as it stands now it's only a misdemeanor.
"If you start hanging their picture on the front page prosecuted and they're off to jail, that's going to tell the rest of the men in Alabama, ones that may decide to come for some convention or something, they're going to know it's not safe in Alabama. Unfortunately from what I can see for the lack of prosecutions, it might be perceived as safe in Alabama," said Smith.
Unfortunately it's easy to find girls for sale in Birmingham on certain websites. All of the girls on those sites claim to be over 18. But are they really doing this by their own free will? McCarty said no.
"This is not a choice," said McCarty.
McCarty said the girls are threatened or shamed by the trafficker. The victims feel as though they have been labeled prostitutes and society will only see them as such. McCarty said it took years for her to be able to recognize she was a victim.
McCarty was able to get out after being arrested in Birmingham. Since then, she founded the Well House, a place for human trafficking victims to go and get the help they need. She continues to tell her story and tries to save lives.
"She's somebody's daughter, period. On top of that she is the daughter of the King. She deserves to be loved. If we don't reach our hands down and help her see the light then we're failing her,” said McCarty.
As for Alabama's law, Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange said the state is working on new legislation that would change the penalties for buyers, but he even admits the way the law is now buyers only get a slap on the wrist.
FBI Director James Comey said the challenge is getting people to understand this does exist.
If you find yourself in one of these situations or are concerned about someone else, there is help out there. You can call the National Human Trafficking Resource center at 1-888-373-7888 or The Wellhouse at 1-800-991-0948.