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Religious Groups' Efforts to Fight Sex Trafficking Draws Presidential Attention
Image: Niall Carson / AP
Religious Groups' Efforts to Fight Sex Trafficking Draws Presidential Attention

Just 13.

That's the average age UNICEF reports that girls enter the commercial sex trade in the U.S.

And while many Americans might think of sex trafficking as an international problem, it often starts in the United States. Prosecutor Lindsey Roberson has seen it happen.

One of her first cases involved a 17-year-old girl who met a guy at a downtown club. He wooed her, and then "took her out of town on a trip, and let her know what she would have to do to pay her way," Roberson said.

"She had no ID, no cell phone; no way to contact her mother. And the guy ended up advertising her for sex on Backpage.com and trafficking her all the way out to California and back to Virginia."

The difference between sex trafficking and freelance prostitution is who has the control and who is keeping the money, said Roberson, an assistant district attorney in New Hanover County. If a girl or a woman is being forced or coerced by a pimp to perform sex acts without monetary gain, that's trafficking.

The North Carolina Coalition to Combat Human Trafficking ranks the state among the top 10 states for the problem. North Carolina's three major highways connect much of the East Coast, and the state has a large transient military and farmworker population, and international seaports in the Cape Fear region.

In May, Roberson helped start a deferred prosecution pilot program for first-time offenders with prostitution charges, partnering with a local rape crisis center.

As a Christian, Roberson is also on the board of a new faith-based effort called the Centre of Redemption, which is scheduled to open in December to help pregnant teens and teen moms who are also trafficking victims.

Law enforcement is increasingly teaming up with faith groups to combat sex trafficking around the country. Some are calling the faith-based push against human trafficking the newest "Christian abolitionist movement."

In California, an Underground Church Network has formed to help U.S. trafficking victims. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has developed a human trafficking curriculum. And the National Association of Evangelicals' humanitarian arm, World Relief, told CNN in February that its North Carolina offices had seen a 700 percent rise in reports of human trafficking last year.

Religious groups have also rallied against Backpage.com, which is owned by Village Voice Media, which they say is a haven for pimps and traffickers.

The issue drew the attention of President Obama at former President Bill Clinton's Clinton Global Initiative on Tuesday, where Obama said the estimated 20 million victims of human trafficking would become a major focus of his Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

"Like that Good Samaritan on the road to Jericho, we can't just pass by, indifferent," Obama said. "We've got to be moved by compassion. We've got to bind up the wounds."

In Wilmington, The Centre of Redemption, founded by former local banker MaLisa Johnson, will be funded by grants and local churches as the first boarding school of its kind in the state. The Centre will start small, accepting two teens and their children and will expand, Johnson said.

"Traffickers will actually purposefully impregnate a girl to control her and will sometimes sell the child on the black market," Johnson said.

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