CLEARWATER, Fla. - The story comes from the girl next door in Clearwater. A good student and good daughter, Crystal was close to her father.
But at age 15, as her dad was passing away from a terminal illness, a simple change of her online status update was all it took for a woman, who said she was 18, to prey on a vulnerable child.
"It basically started with the Internet," says Crystal. "I ended up hanging out with this person. She seemed cool. She would take me to the hospital, she would drop me off. We'd hang out. We'd go to the beach just like a normal friend."
But when Crystal's father died, the Department of Children and Families came for her and she went running to her new friend. She hid in a house in one of Tampa's rougher neighborhoods.
And then, that new friend had Crystal right where she wanted her. "I went to go call my brother and she knocked the phone out of my hand and punched me in the face," says Crystal, now 22-years old. She says she was beaten repeatedly and was frightened.
Then, she says, the woman who later turned out to be 31 years old threatened to call DCF if Crystal tried to run. Just days before she was to enter the 9 th grade, Crystal says she was driven north to a rundown duplex in Atlantic City, NJ against her will. She recalls being led to a guarded basement with dirty mattresses on the floor and a handful of young girls.
She says all of them were held captive. "They were like 13, 14. One of them looked really young. I mean they never told me their age we were never really allowed to talk to each other because the guys would tell us we needed to shut up," she recounts.
One day before her 16th birthday, Crystal was sold for the first time. $600 was the price her trafficker negotiated. Still a virgin, Crystal says was tied up as a man negotiated with her trafficker.
"He was asking her really weird stuff like if he could pee on me and if he could smack me, if he could choke me" she says.
FBI Special Agent Greg Christopher leads Tampa's Innocence Lost Task Force. In just 5 years, he has helped rescue more than 100 children in the Bay Area who were being sold for sex.
Many are sold out of seedy Tampa motels or openly on websites like Backpage.com. The girls who are trafficked come from all walks of life. "We're talking about kids in and out of foster homes, group homes that are recruited but we also have victims who come from stable families," Christopher says.
Experts who deal with children who are sex trafficked say minors caught in the trade are groomed. Many are even brainwashed by the physical and sexual abuse.
The 20-25 girls Christopher rescues a year he says are just a fraction of how many kids like Crystal are out there hiding in the Bay Area's dark underworld that people don't want to know exists. "Some of our cases we have had victims that the cases were called in as child abductions, literally snatched up and abducted and forced into prostitution," he says.
Estimates show nearly 300,000 children under the age of 18 are trafficked in the US every year. Statistics state Florida has the third most victims.
For Crystal, one final escape attempt in New Jersey was successful. 6 years later, she counsels some of the Bay Area girls like the ones Special Agent Greg Christopher helps rescue.
But some days her mind goes back to the girls in that basement in Atlantic City. "I've always wondered if they ever escaped or are they alive," Crystal says. "where are they now?"
PART 2: Safe House (Click the second video in the player to watch part 2)
For two years, Laura Hamilton has been dreaming of the day that donors and the state will green light her plan to build what's called a "safe house."
Hamilton has been scouting secluded locations all over the Bay Area in recent months.
On this day, she looks out into a field of wildflowers and horses. "We would have individual homes within a circle and a fountain in the middle to add to the peace and tranquility," Hamilton says as she surveys the land. She hopes it would be a place her non-profit, Bridging Freedom, will help rehabilitate the dozens of young teen girls rescued every year from the Bay Area's dark underworld where kids as young as 8-years old are sold for sex on our streets and in plain view on the internet.
The business of trafficking minors for sex is alive and thriving in Central Florida, according to the FBI. "You can only sell cocaine once but you can sell a child over and over and over and there's a demand for a 12-year-old," says Hamilton.
Natasha Nascimento realized her dream just this spring when she opened what was Tampa's only "safe house." A safe house has an on-site therapist for girls who were victims of sexual abuse. They also
provide home schooling and 24 hour security. "Part of our mission is to salvage their childhoods," says Nascimento.
At 26, she was moved when she found out minor sex trafficking was not just a problem in foreign countries. It was happening here in Florida. She quit her job and began raising money to open her non-profit, Redefining Refuge, in Hillsborough County. Earlier this year, Nascimento opened the bay area's first safe house in a secluded and private location.
From the outside it looks like an ordinary home. On the inside, the walls are bright and cheery. The decorations on the walls have subtle messages of hope, happiness, and grace. "Our goal here is to get these kids healthy enough to re-integrate into society but the problem is it costs a lot of money," says Nascimento.
When Governor Rick Scott signed the Safe Harbor Act in January, it declared children caught up in the sex trade would get the therapy they need in safe houses. The state would help fund them by increasing the fines for convicted johns. While child advocates applauded the signing of the bill, they say safe houses are uncharted territory for Florida.
They are so new there still is not a uniform set of guidelines or policies in place yet of how safe house should be run or governed. In April, a teen girl was raped after she wandered away from a Miami safe house program. DCF quickly stepped in and shut it down. Soon after, Nascimento's safe house hit a snag when DCF said she had to hire a contractor licensed to operate group homes.
Group homes have open campuses in many aspects. Safe houses are much more intense with security to the highest level. The girls are only allowed to leave the property with a staff member for their own safety. Nascimento says traffickers see the girls as their property and will stop at nothing to find them and kidnap them again. Some girls even try to run back to their traffickers.
Nascimento says when she saw her dream being run in a group home style she put up a fight. The group operators left and took the girls with them. One girl was picked up the next day. "That was the girl that was doing so well here and then went to a group home and within two hours was in an abandoned home prostituting herself again," Nascimento said.
FBI Special Agent Greg Christopher has helped rescue more than 100 kids in Central Florida. He says it could be more if there was a proper place to put them. "We don't have enough facilities. We don't have enough programs. Maybe we don't have the right programs," says Christopher. At the moment, with nowhere to cater to the needs of children who are sex trafficked, they're often placed in group homes with other abused and abandoned children.
Crystal was abducted from Clearwater at the age of 15 and sold into the sex trade after her father died. She says some traffickers use group homes as a recruiting ground. There was one case just recently uncovered here in Tampa. "They'll (the girls) go into a group home and they'll tell the girls how to have sex for money and they'll go sell the girls and they'll recruit them," says Crystal.
After she was rescued in 2006, she says she bounced around from group home to foster home and struggled to get the help she needed.
11 months after the Safe Harbor Act was signed into law the state has only collected two fines totaling $9000 for sex trafficking victims. That leaves Hamilton and Nascimento to seek help through private donations which they say is not coming easily. They say other states like California and Georgia have successful safe house programs in place.
They wonder how long it will take for Florida to follow their lead. Until then, Hamilton's field of dreams sits empty. "It's hard to get the community to help you build a place until they start seeing others get on board," says Hamilton. DCF says they are on board.
In a statement provided to ABC Action News they stated:
"DCF continues to work deliberately to license safe houses across Florida that will have the setting, resources and expertise to treat victims of human trafficking. Florida has taken a huge step in treating these young people as victims and not as criminals and delinquents. As DCF works to enhance services to victims of sex trafficking through licensing, these young victims are evaluated and placed into settings that are most appropriate for their individual situations — that may be a specialized group home, a therapeutic foster home or intensive in-home services. DCF is also working with our partners to recruit more therapeutic foster homes in order to ensure we have options for the best placement to meet the needs of these victims."
DCF hopes to have 50 new beds available for victims of sex trafficking within the next year.