A recent episode of Dr. Phil highlighted the horrifying story of Kacie, who went out with friends to play pool and ended up being sold on Craig's List for sex. It began when she became bored with pool and wanted to go home. Her friends weren't ready to leave, but a friend of a friend offered to take her home. Instead, he took her to his house, where she was drugged, taken to a hotel and forced to have sex with several men. Then the guy took her to another hotel and sold her to pimps. The nightmare continued for eight days until the police finally found her.
Surprised? Consider these facts.
• Human trafficking is expected to be the No. 1 crime in America in 2012.
• Human trafficking is a $40 billion a year industry.
• More than 100,000 children in the United States are forced to engage in pornography or prostitution each year.
• One of every three runaway children is coerced into the sex trade within 48 hours of leaving home.
• The United States is the No. 1 destination for sex tourism.
"People may be aware of human trafficking, but most people don't realize that it is a very serious problem in the United States," said Kara Fagan, executive director of the Women's Fund of Greater Chattanooga.
"Atlanta is the epicenter of this industry. Young girls [and to a lesser extent boys] who typically don't have a stable home life are coerced into exploitation and robbed of their childhood and youth. Sadly, the average lifespan of a victim is seven years.
"Many think girls participate in this for the money and that they can leave. Research indicates the most common exit from 'the life' is death."
Human trafficking is a crime that involves recruiting, transporting, transferring, harboring or receiving a person for the purpose of exploiting them.
In an effort to address this growing problem, Congress enacted a law to combat human trafficking in sex, slavery and involuntary servitude and to reauthorize certain federal programs to prevent violence against women.
"Human trafficking is increasingly committed by organized, sophisticated criminal groups and is the fastest growing source of profits for organized criminal enterprises worldwide," said Ms. Fagan.
"Tennessee is taking the lead to prevent human trafficking. A hotline has been established so that if people see something suspicious they can report it immediately. It also is set up to help victims in need of assistance."
Many parents don't believe this could happen to their child. The reality is, it could. The best weapon we have is education. You can help in this battle by:
• Becoming educated on the issue and passing the information along to your children, neighbors and colleagues. Two excellent places to obtain information are: www.humantrafficking.org and www.gems-girls.org.
• If you see something or suspect something, call the hotline. The Tennessee Hotline is 855-558-6484. The National Human Trafficking Hotline is 888-373-7888.
Julie Baumgardner is president and executive director of First Things First. Email her at email@example.com.