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GRANDVIEW, Mo. — “She said she would be at the Super Bowl in Tampa right now (to be trafficked) if she was still with her pimp,” Denise Lester said.

The story is sadly all too familiar to Lester, who works with Rended Heart. Her Grandview-based organization helps women and children who are sexually exploited and trafficked. 

During a recent conversation with FOX4 about sex trafficking at the Super Bowl, Lester shared that comment one of her survivors made about the seedy side of NFL championship games and other major sporting events. 

“She’d been trafficked for years and taken to a number of states for sporting events,” Lester said. “I have many clients who have shared with me that they were moved into those cities (that host major sporting events) specifically to be trafficked.”

“I absolutely think there are young women right now from Kansas City who are en route to Tampa to be trafficked.” 

Denise Lester, Rended Heart

Studies show sex trafficking — especially among minors — is a major problem in Tampa. 

According to the organization It’s a Penalty, which sponsors anti-trafficking campaigns at sporting events around the world, including this year’s Super Bowl: 

  • Children as young as 12 are trafficked for sex in the Tampa Bay area. The area’s tourism industry, adult entertainment industry and international airports and seaports create what the organization calls a “lucrative, and highly accessible, environment” for sex trafficking minors; 
  • Tampa has a large population of runaway children, which contributes to the sex-trafficking problem; 
  • One in six runaways will be lured by a sex trafficker and forced into prostitution within 48 hours of being on their own; 
  • Tampa ranks 12th in the country for the number of calls per capita to the National Human Trafficking Hotline; 
  • Florida has the 3rd highest rate of human trafficking cases in the country 
  • More than 100,000 children are trafficked for sex each year in the United States; 

But what’s the connection between sex trafficking and high-profile sporting events? Why are they such a lure for traffickers? 

“When major sporting events happen around the world or in the U.S., there’s an influx of people to those host cities,” said Josh Miller, US director of partnerships for the It’s a Penalty campaign. “Even if those people aren’t attending the game, they’re still tailgating and having parties.” 

And those increased number of partygoers can lead to heightened demands for sex and incidents of trafficking. 

NFL Players Join Campaign To Combat Sex Trafficking 

“Our goal is to raise awareness of this issue and bring to an even higher level of awareness,” Miller said. “That’s why we work with some of the biggest names in the National Football League to raise that awareness.” 

This year, the organization worked with such NFL stars as Chris Godwin and Will Gholston with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, along with Aaron Rodgers, Nick Foles, Andy Dalton, and Benjamin Watson, to create a 30-second anti-trafficking video. 

That video will be shown on all American Airlines flights and available to travelers who have the Southwest Airlines app.  

“We’re focusing on visitors coming into the Tampa International Airport for the Super Bowl,” Miller said. “We’ll have signage up in the airport and at security checkpoints to educate and equip the public about trafficking and how to report it.” 

He added: “Believe it or not, there are people who do not understand what human trafficking is. There are people who think it involves violent kidnapping, which can happen. But a majority of trafficking happens in our own cities and towns.” 

Miller said his organization also partnered with other stakeholders interested in combatting sex trafficking, including Hilton Worldwide, Uber, and various state and federal law enforcement agencies. 

“We trained 44 Hilton Hotel managers about trafficking,” Miller said. “They’re the frontline workers. And we worked with Uber to train their drivers about trafficking.” 

The organization also worked with more than 500 volunteers, who distributed its campaign awareness kits to nearly 300 hotels and motels in the Tampa Bay area. The kits included stop trafficking posters, leaflets, hand sanitizers, and flyers about missing children. 

 “And I can confirm that four missing children have been identified as a result of our volunteers’ canvassing efforts,” Miller said. “That’s just since this weekend.  

“We are excited that we were able to identify those four missing children because the data shows one in six kids who are missing have likely been involved in a trafficking situation,” he added. “And we’re still looking for other missing children.” 

COVID-19’s Impact On Sex Trafficking 

Asked about COVID-19’s impact on sex trafficking, Miller said: “It’s made it ten times worse. It’s made it so much more difficult for those being trafficked because they’re locked down with their traffickers where before they could go to public places and see a number to call for help. 

“The online exploitation (of children) has dramatically increased due to COVID,” he added. “In April, the National Association of Missing and Exploited Children reported a 300% increase in online exploitations. The traffickers are doing all their grooming online in COVID-19 because of the lockdown and because so many kids are doing school virtually.” 

But Miller is optimistic his organization’s sport-centered anti-trafficking campaign can combat this growing problem. 

It already has a proven track record. 

“When we ran our campaign at the 2020 Super Bowl in Miami, we saw a 163% increase in calls to the National Human Trafficking Hotline as opposed to the same time the year before,” he said. “We’re raising awareness, working with law enforcement, and equipping people on how to report trafficking.” 

Back in Kansas City, Lester applauds the It’s a Penalty campaign to stop sex trafficking.

“I love that it’s bringing hotels into play and involving their folks,” she said. “They can have materials at their front desks and their employees can be the eyes and ears of what’s going on in the hotels. 

“And having more awareness at events like the Super Bowl and proving training for the people there is super helpful to the community,” she added. 

But Miller said there’s much more work to be done to stop the lucrative sex trafficking industry. 

“People can’t fathom just how big a problem sex trafficking is,” Miller said.

“When someone traffics drug, they can only sell those drugs one time. But when you traffic human beings, you can sell them over and over and make a lot of money.”

Josh Miller, It’s a Penalty Campaign

Resources to Combat Sex Trafficking 

Fast Facts: 

In 2020, Rendered Heart: 

  • Received more than 400 calls from women in this area who were trafficked for sex. Some of those calls included ones from the National Trafficking Hotline; 
  • Assisted 84 individuals – 76 women, 5 teenagers, and 3 men