The new girl in town invited Shauna Newell, then 16, for a sleepover in her Pensacola, Fla., neighborhood. While at the girl's house, Shauna asked for some water. She drank it -- and then blacked out and woke up to a complete and utter nightmare.
Last month, in a special report, "Sex Slaves in the Surburbs," Today's Natalie Morales explored how thousands of American youths have fallen victim to human traffickers. Human trafficking is widely viewed as a crime against others -- something that happens overseas, not here. And certainly not to U.S. citizens. After all, nearly 20,000 people are trafficked into the U.S. each year.
True to the plots of so many Lifetime movies, countless women living in poor countries are promised study or work in the domestic or service industries, but instead are sold for anywhere from $10,000 to $300,000 and forced into prostitution. Trafficked women are usually taken to brothels where their passports and other identification papers are confiscated. They may be beaten or locked up and promised their freedom only after earning -- through prostitution -- their purchase price.
Traffickers often prey on immigrants from developing countries in Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia and Latin America, where many lead lives of desperation. Lacking a sustainable income, these women are lured by the guise of a better life abroad. In some families, girls are seen as burdens or liabilities and are coerced into the sex industry by their own fathers or brothers. Traffickers also use offers of marriage, threats, intimidation and kidnapping to obtain their victims.
Yet the problem has significantly moved beyond immigrant trafficking and into Smalltown, USA.
In the report, Shauna Newell, now 18 -- who looks and sounds something like the epitome of the girl next door -- opens up about how she went to a new friend's for a sleepover, was drugged and raped, and was then sold as a sex slave. Sadly, her case isn't an isolated nightmare. Every day, more trafficking rings are being busted, like this one in Memphis.
Investigator Brad Dennis -- one of the few who, when Shauna went missing, suspected she was a victim of human trafficking -- says sex trafficking is a growing problem in the Florida Panhandle. The state's 16 westernmost counties have essentially become the trade's epicenter, he says. "They know how to target these young, vulnerable teenage girls," he told NBC News. The girls are then moved around a circuit and sold for sex.
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The U.S. government says human trafficking is one of the largest criminal industries in the world -- second only to drugs -- and the fastest growing.
For law enforcement, it's a new and complicated headache. Cities like Clearwater, Fla., have created special task forces for trafficking. Similarly, Nashville's once global " Free for Life Ministries -- which began as a charity primarily devoted to stopping sex slavery oversea
s -- has now turned its attention to its own back yard, where police have reported a crop of local sex slaves. In the past month, police in Memphis have also busted a sex-slave brothel.
But still, sex slavery often goes under-reported. A hotline operator from the National Human Trafficking Resource Center
likens the discourse around sex trafficking to domestic violence as it was 20 years ago -- a dirty little secret. And absolutely not the type of thing that happens in the suburbs to white, middle-class females.
Families of victims like Shauna's continue to lobby for national legislation that will provide aid for Americans forced into the sex trade similar to aid that is provided for people brought into the country and forced into prostitution.
"We're trying to build an underground railroad just like in the days of slavery," sex slavery investigator Dennis told Pensacola's Independent News. "This is modern-day slavery