JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Human sex trafficking is a multi-billion dollar industry in the United States according the Department of Justice, and it's happening right here on the First Coast. Some of the victims are young children forced to have sex dozens of times a day.
The Jacksonville Sheriff's Office says in 2013 working with the FBI two individuals were indicted on federal charges for human trafficking, and an additional 40 arrests were made for other charges related to human trafficking. JSO says last year case it worked on resulted in 50 victims of human trafficking being recovered or identified including seven juveniles.
ONE MAN'S STRUGGLE
Jerome Elam was a defenseless child, only 5-years-old, when he says a relative forced him to be a sex slave in Florida.
"It began because I was a child desperate for affection. The relative who was a predator took advantage of that., and basically coerced me into trafficking using drugs and alcohol and threats of violence," recounted Elam.
Sexually abused over and over again Elam says he was also coerced into child pornography. To outsiders though, he says he appeared to be a normal child. He even attended school.
"I would be pulled out of school at times and what they would do is they would set up a list of clients and this would take place in hotels, in campers, in store rooms, whatever location they chose we would be forced to go to.," said Elam. "There was no depth of depravity these people had, so it was a very lucrative business."
The pedophiles buying his services according to Elam were often trusted members of society.
"They looked like the people you would see in church on Sunday. These were doctors and lawyers and people who were well respected but the darker side of them were never exposed until they got into the after hours trafficking part of it," said Elam.
Controlled not by chains but by fear he says he ultimately escaped at the age of 12 after seven excruciating years of hell. He found freedom after a suicide attempt landed him in the emergency room.
He's now sharing his story to raise awareness about what's happening in small towns, larges towns and everywhere in between and to empower other victims.
"You can reclaim your life. Just because somebody tries to make you feel like you are worthless doesn't mean you are. There is a light inside of us that we never lose touch with. You can find that. Just look for it and find a way out," Elam said.
A GROWING PROBLEM
According to the Florida Department of Children and Families children who have endured past sexual abuse, have unaddressed trauma and are runaways are at a heightened risk for becoming a victim of human trafficking. DCF says two-thirds of all children who run away from home are approached within 48 hours to get involved in sex trafficking. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimates a pimp can make $150,000 to $200,000 per child a year, and the average pimp has 4 to 6 girls.
In Florida there has been an increased number of reports each year of human trafficking. In 2013 DCF says its Abuse Hotline received 960 calls statewide regarding human trafficking. 105 of those calls came from northeast Florida. 10 of the cases in the Northeast Region were verified including four in Duval County including to John Harrell with DCF.
"The Florida Department of Children and Families has a great working relationship with the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office and the FBI. DCF notifies the Child Protection Team, law enforcement, and the FBI immediately when we get a report on human trafficking."
If you suspect that a child is being abused or neglected Florida law requires you report it to the Florida Abuse Hotline by calling 1-800-962-2873. To find out more about the signs of child abuse, go HERE.
Human Trafficking Resources:
1-888-373-7888 - National Human Trafficking Resource Center