Report: Thousands of Hawaii runaways in danger of being trafficked

Report: Thousands of Hawaii runaways in danger of being trafficked

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - A national group that tracks runaways says nearly 2,500 children in Hawaii are in danger of being exploited at any given time.

Experts say many of them fled sex abuse at home, and are desperate to survive on the streets.

But it's not just a problem with runaways.

Social media is making it easier for pimps to lure young people into sex trafficking, and it can start with a simple friend request, advocates say.

"The internet has created this virtual world where you can order somebody, sell somebody," said Kaleo Schneider, education coordinator for non-profit Hoola Na Pua, which seeks to stop sex trafficking. "I see the grooming in the schools. In fact. there were a few cases on the Leeward side of the island where girls were leaving campus."

According to the National Runaway Safeline, there are nearly 4,000 runaways reported every year in Hawaii. Many are victims of sexual or physical abuse at home.

Once on the street, it's estimated 2,500 of  those teens are in danger of being trafficked.

Experts say the going rate for a sex act with a minor is between $100 and $300 for 15 minutes.

Tammy Bitanga was sexually abused as a young child, from the age of 4 "until I realized that's not what families do."

When she was 13, she told someone what was happening and was placed in foster care. It wasn't long before she met the man who would become her pimp.

"I kind of got boyfriended into it," she said. "I got trafficked in Waikiki and from there I got sent to Alaska to work inside a massage parlor. I was 15 at the time."

The average age of the girls sex trafficking advocates work with on Oahu is between 13 and 16 years old.

And with today's teens, advocates say, social media has created an environment where a pimp can target anyone. Those who are chosen are often young, vulnerable and and looking for attention.

After breaking free, many survivors end up on the mainland because there are no intensive treatment programs on island.

Hoola Na Pua is working to change that, hoping to open a 32-bed, $7.8 million treatment facility called Pearl Haven by the end of 2018.

"It's a place where everything can take place," Schneider said. "Their education. We'll have services for the mind, body and soul -- so they will have a place to really heal."

It took 15 years for Bitanga to finally escape from a life of sexual exploitation. She's now an advocate, and her mission is to keep others from going down the same path.

"Today, when I think about it, like what if there was an intervention for me?" she said. "That's why it's so important today that when we discover a 15-year-old girl that's been trafficked we give her that option."

Hoola Na Pua is seeking donations for its new treatment facility, and hopes to raise $4 million by year's end.

To make a donation or for more information, click here.

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