The "No. 1 destination" for an American looking to have sex with a child is right here in the United States, said Debbie Colton, founder of Oasis of Hope Ministries. "People just don't realize what's going on in their own country."
Colton addressed the United Churches of Lycoming County ecumenical luncheon on Wednesday.
Oasis of Hope Ministries, which opened in January, provides at least a yearlong stay in a local group home for teenage girls who have been rescued from sex trafficking.
Underage sex trafficking "is happening, it's local and it's very, very serious," she said.
Human trafficking doesn't necessarily involve crossing national borders. Colton defined it as involving any activity when someone profits from selling the services of another human being.
Statistics say that 100,000 to 300,000 children are involved in sex trafficking every year, and the average age of entry into prostitution is 13. It's now a bigger business than gun running, second only to drugs on the list of illegal commercial activities.
"We've had girls as young as 10 and 11 who have been trafficked for three or four years," Colton said. "There are less than 300 beds available for these children in America. For foreign children rescued in our country, the government provides beds and training, but nothing for domestic children."
The law often punishes young girls who have been caught up in sex trafficking without taking care of those who lured them into the business in the first place, she said.
"Victims of domestic minor sex trafficking are in detention facilities across the country under charges of prostitution, while those who buy sex from them are free," Colton said. "They're not bad girls. It's just all they know."
A would-be pimp often ingratiates himself or, in some cases, herself to young, insecure girls by posing as a friend, then blackmails the girl into sex work, where they may be stuck for a long time. Physical and mental abuse are part of the business.
"Once the drugs or guns are sold, there's the money and that's it," Colton said. "With these girls, they can be sold over and over."
The girls who come into Oasis of Hope are naturally "very angry" when they arrive, Colton said.
"The girl who runs the other girls under the pimp is known as the 'bottom bitch,' which sounds bad, but it's the girl in charge," Colton said. "The group of girls is always competing and manipulating to get there. Imagine the fun we have when we get a group of girls in our home who only know how manipulate and fight their way to the top."
Girls who come to Oasis of Hope are homeschooled and participate in a range of therapeutic activities, including cooking, canning, gardening, music, dance, art and caring for a house dog and cat.
All of the girls receive individual psychiatric treatment. Seven beds are available in the home, which receives no government funding and was renovated through the work of 200 volunteers from six states.
The best defense against sex traffickers is to teach girls, and boys, their true value in the eyes of God, Colton said.
"If a man approaches them, they should have their antennaes up. A normal 30-year-old man is not going to approach a 14-year-old. Teach them not to be insecure, but tell them that they're beautiful, tell them they're made in the image of God," she said.
For more information, visit oasisofhopeusa.org.