“It hurt so bad,” says T Ortiz Walker Pettigrew, a young woman who was exploited for sex from the ages of 10 through 17, beaten, raped and tortured. To this day, she cannot tolerate the cold. Now a college student in Baltimore, she serves as a nationwide policy consultant for survivors advocacy groups.

Broader implications

She is not alone. While the exact number is unknown, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) reports that in 2014 1 out of 6 runaways reported to them was likely a victim of child sex trafficking.

“Traffickers are masters of manipulation,” explains Melissa Snow, a child sex trafficking specialist with NCMEC. “They take the time to learn what a child’s vulnerabilities are and use that against them. They create a false sense of hope.”

T’s story

The reality is much different. “Every day was different depending on what city we were working in,” says Pettigrew, adding it depended on what services they provided: massage, internet, street or strip clubs. “I was always on edge and in fear for my life.”

"She adds that people have the misperception that only girls are targeted: 'While the highest percentage is girls, boys and LGBT youth are also exploited.'"

Born into the foster care system, she was physically, mentally and sexually abused from early childhood on. When she was 10 years old, she met a man whom she thought loved her and would take care of her. Her life after that was hotel after hotel. “I was nothing but a paycheck to him,” she said. “He would tell me I was supposed to be there. I didn’t know what to believe.”

She felt hopeless, empty—cold. “I didn’t know why my life was like this,” says Pettigrew, who now wants to be the best woman she can be so she can help others. “I didn’t know how to fix it.”

Spreading awareness

This happens in communities across the country. Child sex traffickers usually target teens between the ages of 14 and 16. “They use psychological control,” Snow sums. She adds that people have the misperception that only girls are targeted: “While the highest percentage is girls, boys and LGBT youth are also exploited."

“We need to lift the veil,” continues Snow. “It’s not about choice. There is a lack of options in a young person’s life. They believe what traffickers spin around them.”

When Pettigrew was 17, she met two people who were the catalyst for change in her life. “They cared for me,” she says. “That was a big thing for me. I knew I was going to be okay.” She has built connections with amazing friends and mentors who are there for her. “They love me for me. They want what’s best for me.”

She has traveled a long road. “This is where God has brought me,” says Pettigrew, who works with children at risk of being victimized. “I didn’t go through this crap for nothing.”