It's a topic that nobody wants to discuss. It's uncomfortable and painful, and far easier to imagine as something happening a world away.
But the reality is that it is happening in our neighborhoods. Thousands have fallen into the life, from all across the country, including in our area. They may be your friends or family, or someone you've never met. But regardless, they need our help.
The Dead of Night:
Our journey into the world of sex trafficking started at 2:00 a.m., parked on the side of the road in Northeast, D.C. We're outside of "Courtney's House," a safe house for survivors of child sex trafficking. We're not releasing the location of this safe house, to protect the privacy of these survivors.
We were there to meet with advocates from Courtney's House, to engage in "street outreach." In our car, equipped with cameras, we would spend the next five hours, driving around the city, to find the hotbeds of sex trafficking.
From the moment we started driving, Executive Director, Tina Frundt had a message for us.
"Street outreach starts right now," she said. "Right when we get into the car. We pay attention to everything."
Our path brought our crew to some surprising places. One might think these "tracks" are located in low-income areas, but the reality is that many of them are downtown. Many of the "tracks" are located along K Street NW or New York Avenue.
"They do it right by the White House," Frundt said. "And nobody is going to stop them."
Frundt said it was a "slow" night, compared to the average. That being said, our crews saw at least six young girls, and at least two pimps. Frundt, a survivor herself, said that it's not hard to identify these pimps if you know what to look for.
"They don't leave their money," she said. "They're often sitting in cars and they're watching... When you see a lot of pimps out, you know the girls aren't too far away."
Our drive took us to Minnesota Avenue NE, New York Avenue NW, K Street NW, and various other locations. This trafficking is not hidden. It's right in the open.
Giving The Shadows A Face:
Driving around the city will give you context about the scope of the problem. But it doesn't show the humanity of the problem. The reality is that these dark shadows are young people. As our crew would soon see first-hand, they are teenagers, and they need our help.
On another morning, we returned to Courtney's House, to meet some of the young girls, who are survivors of sex trafficking. They were aged between 13 and 15 years old. They laughed and sang rap lyrics. They raided the fridge in the kitchen, and they nagged Tina, the program "mom."
They were by every definition kids.
"I love them," said Tina. "They're my babies."
These teenagers have all been witnesses to some of humanity's worst characteristics. They've all been victims of sex trafficking. At the time of our interview, some of them were just escaping "the life." Just as with all young survivors, it's impossible to know whether they would stay "out of the life," or if they'd be dragged back in. Tina knows this.
"I don't like the word saved," she said. "I can't save you. That's not what I'm here for. Because only you can save you. I can lead you to the water. I can show you how great it will be. But I cannot save you."
On this particular day, there were five young teenagers at the house. The house is constantly packed full with these girls, just looking for a place to get away. On this day, Tina was leading the young girls in a discussion about love. Because of their young ages, we're going to keep their identities private.
Tina asked the group, "What is love?"
"There's no right or wrong answer."
Here were some of their responses:
"Love is when somebody really cares about you," said the first girl.
"They show you honesty," said another girl. "And show you that you can trust them."
"If that person treats you right and shows you every day - every day - proof that you mean it."
In the conversation, it became even more obvious that these were just girls, far away from those dark images we had just seen walking the streets. Tina said these conversations are the first step in recovery.
"You rescue a body," she said. "But you transition a mind. The problem with the word 'rescue' is that people feel good that they 'saved' somebody. But you didn't actually save anybody. Because it's a whole mindset."
Speaking From Experience - A Dark Past:
At this point, we think it's important to tell you about Tina. She is able to help these young girls, because she's been there.
"It feels like you're losing your mind," she said, as she reflected on her past.
Frundt's story began in Chicago, where she was born in foster care. Eventually she was adopted, but was vulnerable, and in need of a role model. That's when she met a 28-year-old man. Tina was only 13-years-old at the time.
"He told me he was born in foster care," she said. "And he told me that he was adopted and that his family gave him back after a year. None of these things were true. But I believed that it was true. And he was just trying to bond with my story."
Then came Tina's 14th birthday, a day which would change her life forever. She got in a fight with her parents about curfew, and decided to leave the house. She called the older man, who she thought was a friend.
"I get in the car," she said. "But I think we're just going to go driving down the street. And my intention is to come back home. But we started driving. The signs are changing, getting further out on the highway. And I'm saying where are we going? And he tells me we're going to Cleveland because he has a family business."
Eventually the car stops, and they arrive at a beautiful eight bedroom house in a gated community. Following the man's lead, Tina enters the home, and is greeted by four other girls, who appear to be as young as her, and two older men. In her words, none of them "seemed happy to see her."
She then gets ushered into a bedroom.
"There was no phone when I went in there," she said. "And there were no windows... And two other guys come in and sexually assaulted me. And that's actually called the seasoning process."
The seasoning process: A sick way of saying she was raped. That set her on a decades long road of being trafficked.
As we spoke with Tina, one surprising aspect was her level of openness about such a painful topic. No detail was off limits, and she spoke with a calm confidence. It was clear that the advocate had told her story hundreds of times.
Despite all this strength, we asked her if she ever cries.
"Yeah," she said. "I cry. I think everybody works on their things. And growing up I was never very good at showing emotion in front of people, definitely."
She then paused for a moment, before the emotion returned to her voice.
"Probably the people who make me cry are the kids," she said. "They get me to cry when they have straight Fs, and they get a C. I cry all the time if you ask them."
Where Do We Go From Here?
Our crew spent close to six months on this story, speaking with advocates and victims. As we did, it was hard not to get frustrated, with a problem that seemed inconceivably difficult to overcome. But there are actions that we can take to chip away at the problem.
Tina helped us to create three videos, offering advice on the issue of sex trafficking. One is for young people, another is for parents, and the third one is for community members. These videos are on social media right now, and we are asking you to share these videos.
If you take away just one thing from this story, Tina wants it to be the following: Your community is not immune from this problem, and your children are vulnerable if you don't take action.
"I promise you," she said. "Everybody who watches this show has come into contact with somebody who has been trafficked. Whether you knew it or didn't, you did it. You did... And I need them to see. It's not like taken. It's nothing like that. It can be Ward 7 or it can be in Tenleytown. It can be in Tyson's corner or it can be down the street. That's just the real reality of it... No kid is safe because this is about manipulation and every child can be manipulated..."
Tips For Young People:
1) Things are not always as they seem
The unfortunate reality is that many pimps will act like they just "want to party," or be your friend, in order to gain your trust. Some will also offer gigs in modeling or stripping. Don't fall for it.
"They want to make money off of you," she said. "So they're going to pretend that they're awesome people. Because that's how they make their living. Off of you."
2) Beware of older men and women
Often these pimps or recruiters will do so slowly, and so it's common that they won't make any sexual advances at first. That doesn't mean you should let your guard down.
"We all know your awesome," said Tina. "But maybe they have other intentions... You can't predict crazy. So being aware of your situation, and telling the truth about where you are - texting tag numbers of cars you get into to your friends - is important. We're not trying to monitor you. But we are trying to keep you safe."
3) There's a family out there
Calling Courtney's House is completely anonymous. They will not call police or your parents. It's a community where you can speak with other people going through the same thing.
"The first step is calling somebody whose not going to judge you," she said. "Calling somebody who actually went through what you went though so you can understand. That's the first step. The first step is the hardest step. Just making the call.
The number for Courtney's House is 240-389-0317
Tips For Parents:
1) Normalize the conversation
Tina emphasized that speaking to your children about sex trafficking, and pimps is uncomfortable but necessary. Simply talking with your kids, at a young age, can save a lot of heartache.
"Just like we had to do with 'good touch' and 'bad touch,'" she said. "Having them understand what a pimp is, and how human trafficking connects. This should start at five. And it if it makes you feel uncomfortable, it makes me uncomfortable doing intakes with kids who are nine and 11 years old. It makes me uncomfortable."
2) Trafficking has gone digital
Tina said pimps are using social media like never before to recruit young people. For that reason, Tina recommends monitoring your child's device. Be aware of strangers commenting regularly on your child's accounts.
"A pimp can be in your house right now," she said. "Because they can be online. That's how they talk to the kids. So they have different social media names, and they 'DM' them. They like all their pictures from months and months ago. And they start DM'ing them. And it starts off sweet and innocent at first to the child... Monitor. You can prevent your child from being trafficked."
3) Don't wait... Call now
Many parents worry about calling a group like Courtney's House, if they're not "sure." Tina urges you to do so immediately, even if it's just a suspicion. The call will always be anonymous, and they will not call police or protective services. They can walk you through the specifics of what to look for.
"It's ok if you're wrong," she said. "It's ok if they don't need it. But make a call. Or let them know. Or take them to our website to see that there is help out there. At least you did something."
The number for Courtney's House is 240-389-0317.
Tips For Community:
1) Accept that your community is vulnerable
Victims are rich and poor, from the city and suburbs, boys and girls. We all must step up to identify sex trafficking when it's happening.
"For example," she said. "If you see two older women buying outfits for younger girls that you wouldn't let your child wear. If you say 'why is this child with this grown adult,' and that's what you say, then it's really important that you know that could be trafficking."
2) Businesses need to step up
Every day these victims walk among us, and it becomes most apparent at places like clothing stores, nail salons, hair salons and hotels. It's imperative that business owners accept their responsibility, and prepare their employees to identify victims.
"If you care," she said. "You train your host staff to identify. Because I can tell you, if I'm getting this many referrals a week, all of these girls are at nail shops. They're getting their hair done. These are real signs that you will see."
3) Don't wait... Call...
Many people hesitate to call for help because they are "unsure" whether someone is being trafficked or not. Tina urges you to call whether you are sure or not. Calling the tip hotline is anonymous, and it will never trace back to you.
"If you're wrong," she said. "There are no police cars that come busting into someone's house, knocking them on the ground. There's just a special unit that comes and talks to try and investigate the situation. And if it's not trafficking, then it's not. Nobody is arrested, nobody knows it was you, and nothing bad happened. But imagine that it is trafficking, and you didn't say anything."
The number for the Sex Trafficking Hotline is 1-888-373-7888. You can also text the hotline at BFREE (23733).