Just 1 percent of the 300,000 U.S. victims of sex trafficking are rescued. Survivor Jessica Midkiff is among those few, and now works as a mentor for nonprofit groups that helped her recover as the county continues fighting the crime that often ensnares children. Hetty Chang reports for the NBC4 News at 5 p.m. on May 29, 2013.
An attention-grabbing mural on the side of an auto body repair shop on the edge of downtown Los Angeles has an surprising message: it depicts a young woman and states "I am a survivor of sex trafficking."
The mural, put up in April on the corner of Sixth Street and Ceres Avenue, shows the face of 28-year old Jessica Midkiff, who spoke with NBC4 about being forced into the sex trade as a child.
"At 11, I worked at home, out of the house," she said. "Little by little, guys started coming around. Older guys wanting sexual favors in exchange for food, clothes and money."
What followed was more than a decade of life as a prostitute, forced to perform sex acts by a pimp, who used sexual assault, manipulation and threats to Midkiff and her family to make her obey. Like many victims, Midkiff, pictured below at right, said her pimp led her to believe the two could be in a relationship.
"He crept up anytime he could," she said. "Told me he could treat me better, take care of me, we could be a family and he would marry me one day."
What he did instead, according to Midkiff, was force her into prostitution. She describes one night, when she was kidnapped.
"A few guys kinda rushed up on the car, by gunpoint, pulled me out of the car, blindfolded me and laid me down in the back," she said. "Then I experienced a lot of different traumas, abuse. I wasn't able to get away from them for at least a month, almost."
Midkiff's chance to escape came as police arrived at her trafficker's door.
"My pimp at the time sodomized a young lady and did lots of other things to her," she said. "She was able to get away and get to the police."
She now works as a mentor for some of the nonprofit groups that are helping her recover.
Midkiff is among the 1 percent of the 300,000 victims of sex trafficking in the United States who are actually rescued. That means 99 percent are never found.
Last week, two Long Beach men were arrested on suspicion of forcing a teenage girl and two women into prostitution. Police believe there may be more victims.
The child sex trade is a specific target of a Los Angeles County's program focused on such crimes. The county's Probation Department's Domestic Sex Trafficking Unit is the only such unit in the world targeting the trafficking and sexual exploitation of youth.
"I always thought human trafficking had everything to do with things that happen overseas, not things that happen in this country," said Michelle Guymon, the county's sex trafficking unit project manager.
Guymon said she looked at young girls like Midkiff in probation in a different light -- before she understood what sex trafficking was.
"For me, it was really personal when I found out that the girls I kind of had judgement about -- teenage prostitutes -- were actually victims of sexual exploitation," she said. "How did we miss that for so long?"
The unit sees victims as young as 10 years old.
"I think what really changed it for me, was that first 12-year-old and that first 10-year-old," Guymon said.
The cases are difficult to enforce and prosecute without the testimony of the victims, according to Guymon.
"The only way that you have an arrest or case is if a young girl testifies," she said. "And most likely they're not going to do that because they're afraid."
Guymon became emotional when we asked her about the road to recovery for girls who are rescued.
"They're amazing resilient young women," she said, crying. "They've really risen above some really tough odds."