Pictures of Connie Rose as a teenager in the 1970s should bring her a smile.
The statuesque brunette looks like a model in the photos, but Rose, a 56-year-old Tampa resident, says the suggestive poses of that teenage girl hide a horrifying tale of abuse.
“I am a survivor of almost 14 years of incest, about three, almost four years, of sex trafficking and I’m also the daughter of a sex offender and my pimp was my dad,” Rose said.
Rose says her father Zenon Anastassiou began sexually molesting her when she was a toddler. She says he told her it was a cultural thing and it gradually escalated into rape by the time she was 13. Anastassiou pleaded guilty to engaging in sexual activity with another child and assault against that child in 1987. Though Rose never brought charges against her father, she says her childhood was plagued by abuse and emotional extortion.
She says his message was clear: “You want to live in this house? You like the clothes that you get to wear? … Well, if you tell or you stop having sex with me that’s all just going to go away.”
Just short of 16, Rose says she mustered up the courage to hold a knife to her father and tell him to stop.
“He laughed. He literally laughed in my face and he said I’ve been waiting for this day.”
That’s when he allegedly began selling her to other men, using provocative and naked pictures he took of her. The torture allegedly lasted until she was 19 when she got married. Decades later, stories like hers continue to repeat themselves in Florida, a state that’s become a hub for child sex trafficking.
Noel Thomas, the anti-human trafficking coordinator for the Department of Children and Families, says: “Florida is number three in the United States based on call volume for human trafficking.”
Thomas says children fall into sex trafficking through force, fraud or coercion.
That was the alleged case of a Miami-Dade teenager that NBC 6 interviewed last year. Her identity was not revealed because she is a minor. That teenager showed NBC 6 hotels where she had sold her body.
Police say Eugene Sneed and an accomplice befriended her in the least likely of places.
In a Miami-Dade courtroom a prosecutor said Sneed “… coerced a child of 13 years of age who they met in middle school and then put her on Biscayne Boulevard to prostitute herself to men.” Sneed pleaded not guilty to the sex trafficking charge.
Experts say children are also targeted at malls where they hang out with friends and on social media. Pimps profile kids and after learning what makes them tick, they swoop in using fake identities online or good-looking teens, known as runners, as bait.
Thomas says: “So when they actually get a connection and have someone meet them in person they oftentimes rape and abuse them and victimize them, all with photographs and video, using it as blackmail which just further pushes them into the life of human trafficking."
Rose described an approach human traffickers take this way: “…if you don’t want your parents to see what you did and you don’t want everybody at school to see what you did, you need to meet me next weekend at this place and then before you know it, this girl is then going to be sold."
Jorge Veitia runs SolMedia, an organization that tries to combat human trafficking by educating South Florida businesses.
Veitia showed NBC 6 spots in Miami Beach where sex traffickers target children, such as bus stops.
“This is an area where a guy will pull in, pick up a girl and go," he said of one.
With the help of volunteers, Veitia shows pictures of missing children who may have become sex trafficking victims after being kidnapped or running away from home or foster care.
“Statistics are showing that one in three of these kids end up being exploited within 48 hours," Veitia says.
He explains that once pimps have their victims, they market them using tools like online classified sites.
“Somehow like any good predator, pimps know where to find these children and present them with an opportunity to get a dinner or a safe place to sleep or to actually become their boyfriend," Veitia says.
Kim Butler is one of the volunteers that hit the streets of South Beach looking for missing children in hotels and other businesses.
Butler, who is also the pastor at Miami Dream Center and Miami Beach House of Prayer, said, “We started in January and every month we have had someone identified as being seen … sometimes they’re a little bit nervous so they’ll just point to the picture.”
Volunteers then report those sightings to the police but rescuing them is not easy because many times the victims develop love bonds with the trafficker.
Thomas said, “… So when they’re removed from that environment, they’ll oftentimes, without a chance to be deprogrammed and given rehabilitation, they’ll run right back to the traffickers."
To aid in the recovery, Florida recently approved the Safe Harbor Law that allows minors rescued from prostitution to receive help instead of being sent to jail. But advocates say that’s not enough, and that people need to be on the lookout for signs of child abuse and exploitation.
Butler said, “Somebody has to look for these girls and I feel like that’s the attitude we need to take. If we were all too afraid to go out, then what about the girls that are missing?
Currently there are more than 50 South Florida children missing – girls and boys who could be in danger of falling into the hands of traffickers who are behind this “modern day slavery.”