Suburban nonprofit Reclaim 13 helps human trafficking survivors overcome the unthinkable

CHICAGO (WLS) -- According to the Department of Health and Human Services, human trafficking happens in every U.S. state. Half of all victims are under 18, and most are girls and women.

"I was with my friends having fun one minute, and then the next I woke up and I was in a completely different state," one survivor described.

She had blacked out in Chicago and woke up halfway across the country, Then just 16 years old, the woman, whose name is not being shared, was zip tied in the back of a car driven by a 37-year-old stranger.

"He made it very clear where we were going, what was coming next, and what I was meant to do," she said.

The teen is a survivor of human trafficking, which one human rights organization said is a form of slavery that has surged during the pandemic.

RELATED: Human rights org sees 185% rise in human trafficking cases amid COVID-19 pandemic

COVID has amplified our dependence on the internet, making us, and especially children, more vulnerable to its darkest corners.

"Any time that we have more potential victims online, unsupervised, and we have potential offenders online, that can cause problems," said FBI Supervisory Special Agent Wesley Tagtmeyer.

Reclaim 13 is a west suburban nonprofit that helps to rescue and rehabilitate survivors of sexual exploitation. Executive Director Cassandra Ma said they have had a palpable increase in the amount of calls to their hotline since the pandemic began.

"Yeah, we've had almost a doubling in the calls to our hotline," she said.

When someone reaches out to the organization, the first priority is to remove them from danger. What comes next is much harder.

"Moving on and healing kids from this trauma is very, very difficult. They have to overcome tremendous odds," Ma said.

The abuse they've suffered is unimaginable.

"They paid money to hurt me and beat me and torture me," the survivor recalled.

Drugs helped to insulate her from the pain, until she was able to escape. She was flown home to Chicago and into the waiting arms of the staff at Reclaim 13.

Much of the work Reclaim 13 does is in recalibrating a child's understanding of what a relationship is. It's supposed to be fun. Mentors offer positive interactions that might feel foreign to a child who has been exploited.

"The more different experiences children have...the more they are able to see the red flags when they come in relationships," Ma explained.

That mentorship, a safe shelter and therapy helped to soften the reentry to freedom for the survivor who spoke with ABC7 Eyewitness News, and gave her perspective that she now hopes to share with others.

"Just don't put yourself at more risk than you need to be, because you're already at risk just walking out of your door," she said.

The takeaway message is simple: Don't be scared, be informed.

If you meet someone online, get to know that person face to face in a safe, public setting. Make sure they are who they say they are.

And remember, most relationships with would-be traffickers start out well, in what's called a grooming period to build trust. But if someone starts to ask you to do things you are uncomfortable with, online or in person, that's a red flag.

Make sure your children know that, too; it's never too early to start having these conversations.
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