TYLER (KYTX) - We typically think of sex trafficking as something that happens in foreign countries, but the truth is, it's happening all over the United States, including right here in East Texas.
We've reported on a lot of meetings about sex trafficking in Tyler, but it's startling to the community how the problem is growing here.
A big reason is because Dallas is now one of the top 14 sex trafficking hubs in the country. I-20 easily connects Dallas to East Texas, and it's an interstate lots of traffickers use.
That's why a national organization Wellspring Living, came here to establish one of the country's first communities equipped to treat rescued sex trafficking victims, and prevent even more East Texas children from becoming victims.
"It's not just overseas it's here locally," says Tyler mother and medical professional Sharon Hurst.
It haunts Hurst to think that girls just like her 17-year-old daughter have been dragged into a dark world of sex trafficking.
"It hurts my heart, breaks my heart but it moves me to want to do something," she said.
She joined law enforcement officers, child protective services workers, concerned parents, and other medical professionals to learn how to help victims, and educate the community.
"It's a huge need across the nation so it's great that Tyler is one of the first that is really implementing the system," said Mary Frances Bowley, the executive director of Wellspring Living.
It's an Atlanta-based organization that teaches communities around the nation how to combat sex trafficking, and set up recovery systems for rescued victims.
"The numbers are quite staggering that we have 100,000 children that are lured into trafficking every year in the U.S. Those are domestic children." Bowley said. "The entry age is between 12 and 14 are being lured away by perpetrators that sell them for sex. And that can happen 8 to 10 times a night."
Local experts check a web site called Backpage.com in the escort section to keep tabs on sex trafficking activity. That site shows that lots of girls are selling sex in Tyler - a lot of those girls, experts say, are forced to do so.
"We know that girls are taken from here and taken to Arkansas or to Louisiana or other parts of Texas so it is a very complicated thing to catch the perpetrators and rescue the girls. That's why it's important that when we have a girl that's rescued, that we get her right into services and that's what's going to be happening right here in Tyler," Bowley said.
As we've reported, a local organization called Refuge of Light is in the middle of building a home here in east Texas for rescued sex trafficking victims. They have already started construction and hope to be done with the home by the end of the year.
If you're a parent, there are ways you can help keep your kids from becoming victims. A lot of predators are online, so keep your child's Internet protected and monitored. Also look for red flags - do they have multiple cell phones, or very expensive things you didn't buy them? The best thing you can do is talk to them.
These predators look for young children who are detached, insecure, or easily wooed by material objects. It's important to know who your children are surrounding themselves with.
For more information on the homes being build, head to http://refugeoflight.org/about/