Sex trafficking and prostitution in the Valley

COLUMBUS, GA. -- Many people think sex trafficking doesn't happen here, but in reality sex slavery in Columbus is thriving.

Most of the girls and boys that make an entrance into the sex industry haven't even celebrated their eleventh birthday.

According to the Covenant House, more than 12,000 men pay to have sex with young women and men every month here in Georgia.

News 3 spoke with Annie Lobert who escaped her trafficker. As a child Lobert grew up being sexually abused.

When she became a teenager she started using fake ID's and heading out to night clubs for attention.

Lobert says before she gave her life to God, she had been to hell and back.

"I got kidnapped and that's the night that I was in front of six pimps and I was stripped totally nude and beat with a poker from a fire place and gun whipped on my head and all over my body and my hair was shaved off that night," says Lobert.

She says she was originally approached by men who made her feel valuable, "Romantic Romeo finesse pimp type that they become your boyfriend first and then they tell you you're so beautiful, you're so talented."

Bobbi Starr, Executive Director for Micah's Promise, says many children who experienced trauma at a young age are targets for traffickers.

"90% have had or experienced childhood sexual abuse and one third of runaways are approached by traffickers within 48 hours," says Starr.

With more than 20 years of experience, Starr says this is an ongoing problem in the Valley.

Lieutenant Joyce Dent-Fitzpatrick from the Columbus Police Departments Special Victims Unit says accessibility to the Tri City area is attracting traffickers from across the country.

"[We're] connected to two other cities and one other state and we have four bridges that connect us together to Alabama and we have Fort Benning and we have people who are transient some people come here to train at Fort Benning and then they're gone," says Dent-Fitzpatrick.

She also tells us which sites predators are using, so that parents and their children can be aware.

"Facebook After Dark which a child should not be on there because that's really like a porn site. You have "Fetlife" which is a site that is geared towards people with fetishes, also you have "SnapChat" and "KiK" and a lot of apps," she warns.

Although there is a big difference between prostitution and sex trafficking, they are loosely related.

Dr. Joseph Zanga, Co-Chair of the Rotary Committee on Sex Trafficking, says prostitution is the willingness to engage in sexual relations or acts in exchange for money and that sex trafficking is the opposite.

"Girls and boys disappear and they become property of the person that is trafficking them," says Zanga.

Starr believes more Muscogee County children need help and protection, but there is not enough space.

"527 kids in DCFS custody and we had less than 100 beds in foster homes for those children to go to," Starr says. "They've had multiple levels of trauma for them to have been there and those traumas is what makes them vulnerable to traffickers."

Starr says Micah's promise, a Ministry of Christ Community Church, is partnering with restoration homes in Atlanta to keep youth off the streets.

"We are working towards building a restoration home out in the country for girls initially who are taken out of exploitation," says Starr.

Georgia voters will be asked to vote, this November, on a state constitutional amendment that would allow for additional penalties for those found guilty of trafficking, prostitution and related crimes.

This would use the money confiscated to establish a safe harbor fund for survivors.

Meanwhile Lobert, hopes this story will bring the necessary awareness that sex trafficking isn't only a problem in other areas, but right here in our own backyard.

"They need love and they need to know that they matter in this life and that what they've done doesn't affect who they are now or in the future," sh says.

Lobert has opened up the Destiny House Estate, which is a 12 month program designed to address the spiritual, physical, and emotional needs of each woman.

Micahs Restoration Home is waiting to obtain '501c3 status' and they're hoping to open their home to girls who have experienced trauma from sex trafficking by summer of 2017.

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