BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — “Kathryn” is a survivor. She spent more than 10 years as a victim of sex trafficking. We won’t reveal or real name or show her face, but her story is one that is, sadly, not unheard of.
“Nobody knows it’s happening to them, nobody knows,” she said.
Kathryn explained she had no idea what she had been tricked into.
“It was just a life of hell,” she said.
She is just one of the handful of women who now live at the Wellhouse, a healing center for victims of sex trafficking.
“I came from a pretty good family, I went to school, I graduated. I just wasn’t introduced to anything like that,” Kathryn said. It’s a story growing more and more common.
Since the beginning of this year, we’ve reported on at least seven missing teens, many of them labeled runaways. Thankfully, most have them have returned home safely, but that’s not always the case.
“One in three will be lured into prostitution within 48 hours of running away, so that is a legitimate concern and that’s something that we will need to be aware of,” said Carolyn Potter with the Wellhouse.
It’s a ballooning reality for millions of teens. Potter says runaways can be easily lured into the industry.
“Eventually after gaining their trust and relationship, he will force them into prostitution,” said Potter.
Places like Family Connection in Shelby County try to prevent that from happening. There, they have six beds dedicated to helping a teen who needs a safe place.
“We may have a young person come in and stay just a few hours or they may stay several days,” said Susan Johnston, executive director of Family Connection.
Johnston says the key is finding out why a teen has run away in the first place.
Experts say teens run away for several different reasons. Some are trying to escape abusive homes or bad situations. Others may be experiencing some sort of emotional turmoil and don’t know where to turn.
Sgt. Mike House with the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office says right now, they have three open cases for missing teens, mostly repeat runaways. He says just because a teen has run away before does not mean they’re not in danger.
“There’s no such thing as just another missing teen. Every missing child, every missing teenager. Every missing person is loved and cared about by their family their friends. They want them home, they want them safe. That’s the way we treat those cases with dignity with respect and as though it’s our own family member that is the one missing,” said Sgt. House.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children shies away from even referring to missing teens as runaways.
“Runaway children can also be very misleading to the public; in fact, we no longer use that on our posters because we face a desensitized public who don’t always understand the risk that these children face,” said Robert Lowery with the NCEMC.
Kathryn ran away and had no idea what she was running toward. Now, she hopes runaways don’t fall victim to a life that preys on their vulnerabilities.
“It can happen and that there’s so many people out there that will trick you into it. You have to be so careful,” she said.
Here are some resources if you are a parent who wants more information.
For any teens considering running away from home, there is help out there for you. Call the National Runaway Safeline at 1-800-RUNAWAY.