Last week, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Arkansas, Christopher Thyer, announced that a Little Rock man, alleged to have been a pimp and trafficker, was convicted in federal court on one count of sex trafficking.
It was a first for his district, saying "It had been there for quite some time, and the biggest reason some of these cases are coming forward is awareness."
Thyer says awareness is on the rise, but many people don’t know that sex trafficking could be occurring in their area.
Louise Allison is the founder and executive director of the local organization PATH, Partners Against Trafficking Humans, which works to help victims of sex trafficking.
While showing a reporter through an old church in Little Rock that is being renovated and turned into a shelter for victims of sexual abuse crimes, Allison shared that she herself was a forced into prostitution at the age of 14.
"I don't want the girls that are going through the nasty things that I went through, to have to live 30 years in darkness, hiding behind the guilt and shame of something they didn't choose to do, and so, here I am," Allison said.
Two years ago she founded PATH to work against pimps and traffickers, and help girls and women in difficult situations. In addition to the shelter being created in Little Rock, it also has one in North Little Rock. Their locations are not made public to protect those staying in them.
It’s estimated there are 27 million slaves living in the world today.
Forced labor is one form of enslavement, but an increasing number of cases reported involve sex trafficking.
It’s federally defined as “commercial sex acts that are induced through force, fraud, or coercion.
"When we first started two years ago, every place we went to speak, people were shocked. People were shocked that human trafficking took place in America, much less Little Rock, Arkansas," Allison said.
She is quick to point out that those targeted are the most vulnerable of the population.
Lisette Yang, a forensic interviewer at the Children’s Protection Center, says often times immigrant women agree to come to the U.S. in hopes of money and are tricked into paying off massive debts through sex.
"They never see money, its very rare, and if they do it is really nothing. For the trafficking victim, let's say the pimp is getting $300 to $500 a night, maybe the traffic victim gets $10 or $20, if they get that money, because like I said, its an eternal debt. 'You owe me thousands of dollars because I brought you here, because I got you this job,' and then 'you owe me for the food you're eating,' so it's like a never ending debt."
Yang said most people don’t realize that sex trafficking is happening, or if they do, they’re scared to report it, saying, "Indifference is really the worst crime that as a society, and as a community, that we are doing. It is not just protecting myself, it is protecting the community. You don't know, if somebody that you know is going to be next."
Local organizations are working alongside national and international nonprofits to spread awareness and provide needed services to survivors.
Truckers Against Trafficking is a nonprofit that trains truck drivers to look for and report signs of enslavement.
They look for things like women who are not speaking or are being ushered in and out of vehicles.
Executive Director Kendis Paris says calls and reports have increased in Arkansas and drivers are using what they’ve learned.
"We find that encouraging, that there's an increase in calls, so hopefully law enforcement is responding to these calls so that people realize Arkansas is not a friendly state. This is not a place where you do this," said Paris.
Lisa Richardson is co-owner of The Sparrows Nest, a nonprofit resale store in Little Rock. 20 percent of its proceeds go to the PATH organization and she says the store is raising awareness in the community.
"I would say 99 percent of the people that walk through this door, had no clue until the came in the store. They think that it happens abroad, you know especially in the Asian countries, but they have no idea that it is right under their noses," says Richardson.
The nonprofits and law enforcement agencies emphasize the importance of prevention, awareness, and post-trauma help potential victims and survivors of sex trafficking.
Louise Allison, PATH’s director and herself a former victim, wants girls and women to remember their worth.
"You're valuable, you're well loved, and don't think that what's going on around you defines who you are."
Links to local and national resources: