An inside look at sex trafficking

CHICAGO (WLS) -- The FBI, Cook County Sheriff's Department and not-for-profits are working together trying to stop the cycle of the sex trafficking trade. Those who actually escape sex slavery face difficult roadblocks as they try to rebuild their lives.

Marian Hatcher is the human trafficking coordinator for the Cook County Sheriff's Department. Hatcher told the I-Team she had what appeared to be a normal life before having a baby with a gang member who was very abusive.

"I ran from the violence that was going on in the household and ended up on the street. The thing about the streets, though, there's always someone who is willing to take advantage of your vulnerability," said Hatcher.

She became addicted to crack cocaine and was trafficked by two different men. Hatcher was arrested and faced three to seven years in prison. She was provided jail based treatment from the Women's Justice program.

After Hatcher was released, she volunteered at the jail and then, in 2008, she was hired by the Cook County Sheriff's Office. After five promotions, Hatcher is now a senior project manager for Sheriff Tom Dart and part of a team that works with advocacy groups along with dozens of federal and local law enforcement agencies. The group's primary goal is to provide victim centered services to exploited women.

Hatcher said since the summer of 2011, more than 250 women have gone through the program with a 70 to 73 percent success rate.

Salt & Light Coalition is a Chicago-based organization founded by Izabel Olson. She said as a teenager she was manipulated and abused by an older man.

"I ended up getting pregnant and then being left all by myself with this baby at 18 years old. It was a rough road but I feel like everything has prepared me to do what I do today," Olson told the I-Team.

More than half of the women in the sex slave trade are trafficked before the age of 18, according to experts. Olson said that leaves survivors with "nothing to go back to."

Salt & Light provides a safe space for survivors to learn job training and self-care. The women train and receive certificates in personal training and food handling, giving them professional options. Participants are paid $10 an hour for the year long program. Many of the survivors who spoke to the I-Team said the organization has helped them turn their lives around.

On Christmas Eve, 2016, Desiree Robinson was brutally murdered in Markham by her sex buyer, who answered an ad on the recently-shut-down Backpage website. Her mother, Yvonne Ambrose, was at the White House in April when President Trump signed a law aimed at curbing sex trafficking.

"That's how I get through the day, knowing that her legacy, her story, could help somebody else not fall to the exploitation and the horrors out here in the world," Ambrose said.

The new legislation will make it easier for law enforcement and victims to take legal action against websites that host ads for prostitution. Hatcher said "it's a huge deal" that will hold people accountable who were previously not.

Special Agent Ashley Kizler investigates trafficking cases for the FBI and said the agency has 600 active adult human trafficking cases throughout the country.

"Each case is very unique, and also very heartbreaking at the same time. There are certain cases that you never get over because you either didn't have enough evidence or say the victim no longer wanted to assist in the investigation, we typically don't proceed with the case because we don't want to re-victimize the person," Kizler said.

Despite recent law enforcement victories online, Kizler said traffickers will figure out other ways to advertise.

WATCH: Survivors tell their stories
EMBED More News Videos

Stories of survival from sex trafficking victims.

Here is a guide to help you identify someone who may be a victim of sex trafficking:
Quick Guide: Sex Trafficking Victim Identification


Salt & Light Coalition

Cook County Human Trafficking Task Force

Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation

Traffick Free

Haymarket Center

FBI Human Trafficking Task Forces

Cook County Sheriff's Office
Copyright © 2021 WLS-TV. All Rights Reserved.