RALEIGH, NC (Jim Morrill/The Charlotte Observer) - Joy Anderson was in "the game" for seven years. Known then as "Candy," she was shuttled from city to city and hotel to hotel, tethered by crack and beatings and the constant fear of the men who controlled her.
"I was empty, I was lost," she would say. "It was getting so dark so fast and I thought I was going to lose my life. I really thought I was going to die."
Anderson, who was rescued from the sex trade nearly four years ago, is one face of a problem that affects hundreds of people in North Carolina, a form of modern-day slavery that preys on the young and vulnerable. Now 30, she works with other trafficking victims.
Last year, Charlotte, with its growing population and easy access to major highways, was recognized as a focal point in the war on human trafficking. The number of reported cases has jumped in North Carolina and around the country.
Last week, a Mecklenburg County lawmaker introduced a bill that would spend more than $56 million to help victims and to train students and law enforcement officers to recognize the signs of trafficking. At week's end, more than 40 lawmakers had signed on as co-sponsors.
"What I discovered was a lot of legislators were aware it was happening in their districts, but had no idea what to do about it," says Rep. Bill Brawley, a Matthews Republican and chief sponsor.
According to the anti-trafficking Polaris Project, 8,042 cases were reported nationwide in 2016 – 35 percent more than a year before. In North Carolina, 181 cases were called in to the National Human Trafficking Hotline last year, up from 112.
Brawley's bill could help groups like the one run by Lanie George in Cabarrus County.
Herself a trafficking survivor, George named her nonprofit "Redeeming Joy" after Anderson, whom she helped rescue from a hotel room four years ago. George helps new victims by providing beds and counseling on where to find mental health, substance abuse and trauma care. She has facilities to serve 12 women but the resources for just four.
"It's absolutely getting worse," she says. "I don't know of any county I've visited in North Carolina that I haven't seen trafficking going on."
Law enforcement officials' higher reports of trafficking may reflect a growing awareness, not necessarily a growing problem.
"In the coming years, we hope to get a truer, more accurate picture of the crime," says FBI spokeswoman Shelley Lynch. "Not all incidents are reported to law enforcement and not all reported incidents meet the legal standards of 'human/sex trafficking'."
The FBI is part of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Human Trafficking Task Force, a coalition that includes the U.S. Attorney, the district attorney, Homeland Security Investigations and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department.
Victims of human trafficking are men and women, immigrants and native-born Americans. Some are still in their teens. They're ensnared in the sex trade or the labor market, something made easier with the proliferation of Internet sites.
ICE, the federal immigration enforcement agency, arrested nearly 2,000 people last year for trafficking, a global trade estimated to be worth $150 billion. ICE spokesman Bryan Cox says immigrants, wary of U.S. law enforcement, are a vulnerable group.
"The bottom line is the traffickers try to use immigration status as a means of control," he says. "'If you come to us, we'll help you stay'."
Joy Anderson was rebellious and 21 when she left her adoptive family in Aiken, S.C. With no money and no place to stay, she started selling herself for sex. She eventually went to a club where a girlfriend pulled out a wad of cash. "She told me it was easy," Anderson would say. "That was the lie I bought into."
That's when she got in with a rough crowd, who fed her growing addiction and kept her on a tight leash, reinforced with beatings. One night they sent her to a "client" at a Charlotte hotel. She knocked on the door. Inside were FBI agents. And that's where she met Lanie George, who would help her transition to a normal world.
Law enforcement focuses on victims as much as traffickers. Undocumented immigrants can get a "T" visa, which allows them to stay in the U.S. to help in prosecutions. CMPD follows what it calls a "victim-centered" approach.
"Detectives often end up making referrals and connecting potential victims with other social services more than developing prosecutable cases," says CMPD Major Michael Adams.
'Money is what's needed'
Last year a handful of people approached Brawley about the problem. Couldn't the state do something, they asked. Brawley, the father of three daughters, says he remembered a personal experience.
A decade ago, he managed property including a big apartment complex off Tuckaseegee Road. It was visited often by CMPD, Brawley says. There were drugs, prostitution and at least one indictment for trafficking.
"I realized later that I had seen perhaps a dozen other women being trafficked and didn't realize it," he says.
House Bill 910 would allocate $37.5 million for shelter beds, $13.5 million for mental health services, and $4.5 million to educate students on the warning signs for trafficking. Brawley says a bed and services can cost up to $40,000 a year for each victim. Mental health services could cost another $15,000.
"It's huge," Mark Blackwell, executive director of Charlotte's Justice Ministries says of the proposed allocation. "Money is what's needed in this fight. We're operating on a shoe-string budget."
Last year his nonprofit served 150 women who were trafficking victims. "It's pretty much all we can handle as a small, grass-roots group," he says.
Shawna Pagano, a victim advocate at Safe Alliance, is Mecklenburg County coordinator for Project NO REST, a statewide anti-trafficking effort out of UNC-Chapel Hill. She says the needs of trafficking victims are many.
"It's hard to pick just one," she says. "Giving someone a bed is huge. But you're also taking on a person who has had years of trauma."
Joy Anderson says it took her a year of intense counseling for trauma and PTSD. "You've been basically brainwashed by this culture of sex trafficking," she says.