Instead of riding a bike or playing with friends, an 11-year-old Shanika Ampah would spend her days walking along Southwest Eighth Street to Biscayne Boulevard looking for men who wanted to pay to have sex with her.

It was normal, Ampah said, she came from a home where her sexual abuse was ignored and a community where the signs of sex trafficking are used against victims.

“That same community labeled me as a runaway kid, slut, a girl who is out of control,” Ampah told an audience at a domestic violence and human trafficking forum on Jan. 31. “Here, I was in the city of South Miami, a vulnerable child, a victim because I was voiceless.”

Most victims of sex trafficking are usually minorities, said mental health expert, Mathew Jean of Beach Stone Counseling. Immigrants, the LBGTQ community, foster children, the disable population and those who have suffered previous abuse are most susceptible to becoming victims.

Sex trafficking is a form of human trafficking that involves sexual abuse. Sexual abuse is any sexual act that is done without a person’s permission such as molestation, prostitution, rape or pornography, Jean told The Miami Times.

“They have no means to end it whether it be through economic or lack of community support,” he said.

Florida ranks third in human trafficking cases in the country. Miami-Dade County has the most cases, said Marbely Hernandez, an attorney for the state attorney’s Human Trafficking Unit. Since launching the unit in 2012, the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office has helped 600 victims. About 40 percent of them were minors, Hernandez said at the Jan. 31 forum. The youngest, she said was 12 years old.

Victims are being targeted through manipulation. The state attorney’s office refers to it as “trauma bonding.”

“It’s a trauma created in a person’s head that you need them,” said Hernandez. “Your parents don’t want to give you a cellphone. ‘Here you go.’”

Places like bus stops and nail salons are breeding grounds for traffickers to entice young victims. But no ZIP code is safe, Hernandez added.

“It goes from Pinecrest to Aventura, Sunny Isles, all the way to Kendall,” she said. “We need to be aware because sometimes we need our children to feel that responsibility and fear, so that they can run away.”

A major sign of sexual abuse is a change in behavior, said Jean. Children may no longer want to participate in physical education out of the fear of getting undressed in front of others. They may also start to exhibit low self-esteem, poor peer relationships or eating habits. Some victims tend to wear extra layers of clothes regardless of the weather. They may also revert to infantile behavior such as bed wetting, thumb sucking and excessive crying.

IMPACT ON MENTAL HEALTH

Sexual abuse and trafficking have a detrimental impact on mental health, according to Jean. Victims may suffer from high levels of guilt, self-blaming, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicidal thoughts. It also leads to social disruption because victims are ostracized.

“What the little girls my age were taught was not to talk to me because I was pregnant at 14 years old,” said Ampah, who was forced into sex work for seven years. “That was my community saying she is too hot. Don’t hang out with her.”

Survivors also find it difficult to have healthy intimate and sexual relationships, said Jean.

They may avoid or have a lack of interest in sex. Some victims will continue to see sex as a duty instead of pleasure or become emotionally distant during sex. Others may engage in impulsive sexual behavior.

Self-medicating is one of the biggest escapes for sex trafficking victims, said Jean, who has worked with victims in a women’s corrections, a drug rehab and a mental health facility for foster children before starting his own practice.

“They used substance abuse as a coping mechanism,” he said.

Victims use drugs to release themselves from their pain.

“It’s escapism. ‘In my right mind, I could not fathom participating in these activities,’” Jean said of the victims’ thought process.

By establishing open dialogue and removing the stigma associated with sex, everyone can help victims, the mental health therapist said.

“Start to create a safe environment where individuals can talk about what they’re dealing with,” said Jean.

If you or someone you know is a victim of human trafficking, call the state attorney's office’s human trafficking hotline: 305-350-5567.

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