The toll of sex trafficking

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Their descent into prostitution followed different paths but ended up in the same nightmare: abuse, drugs and fear.

For years, the girls who sell their bodies on certain Miami streetcorners and in hotels were treated as criminals.

But new state laws have instructed police and judges to look at the wider context and consider them victims of sex exploitation.

South Florida is the third-busiest area for sex trafficking in the United States, the Department of Justice says, and oftentimes it is children who are drawn into the web without even realizing it.

"You always think that it is not going to happen to you and that that would never happen. It turns around, and it is you, and you don't know what to do," one former prostitute said. "April" agreed to an interview as long as her identity was concealed.

The 18-year-old was in and out of prostitution as an adolescent and eventually jailed.

But the passage of the Safe Harbor Act, which went into effect in January, transformed the way she was treated in the justice system. She was released from jail and given access to treatment for abuse.

The new law is designed to ensure the safety of child victims who have been trafficked for sex, according to the Florida Department of Children and Families.

April says she first ran away from home at age 14 after enduring years of sexual abuse by her grandfather. She met two girls who had jewelry, cars and popularity. April wanted that, too.

They told her, "You know, if you do this and this for us, you can have all this, too."

So she started selling her body.

"As bad as it sounds, it is really easy to just open your legs for five minutes instead of going to work all day and coming home with nothing," April said. "It is very easy, but it is very hurtful on the inside."

Nationwide, the Department of Justice says, between 15% and 20% of men admit having paid for sex at least once. The estimated revenue of the sex industry worldwide is more than $32 billion a year, the department says.

There are international sex trafficking cases and forced labor cases but also domestic cases that happen in plain sight.

Traffickers "use coercion, violence, fraud, they threaten them with harm to their families if they do not listen to them," Ferrer said.