It's low risk and high yield, picking up girls at the mall or at the bus stop who had words with their parents before storming out of the house. An outreached hand offers to help. "Poor thing," says the friendly girl, "let me buy you something to eat." And within 48 hours, that middle schooler, who is often between the ages of 11 and 14, has been gang-raped, drugged or transported to another state and is being sold on the street or in a car or in a brothel, recruited by a "big sister" friend who has just brought a young girl into her pimp's stable.

But never assume that the pimp is necessarily a male. The United Nations reports there are more female traffickers than male.

"This isn't just happening in the cities," says Jeanne Allert, a Howard County resident who heads the Maryland Rescue and Restore Coalition, which educates Marylanders on human trafficking. "Girls are coming from the counties. And in our country, we have an embarrassing number of throwaway children. There's an appetite for young victims, and the U.S. is the number one consumer of human beings. The demand for younger and younger sex slaves is forcing this business."

Every day, more than 2,000 children are reported missing, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and the number of 10- to 17-year-olds involved in commercial sexual exploitation in the United States each year likely exceeds 250,000. Sixty percent of these victims are runaways, throwaways or homeless. The average age to enter prostitution is 12, but the U.S. victim is disproportionately 17.


Submit a Letter to the Editor for the Laurel Leader, Columbia Flier and Howard County Times

At the moment, Allert and Denene Yates, who founded the Safe House of Hope in Baltimore, are talking with 15 students at Frederick Community College, which is one of 14 Maryland colleges that's been hosting anti-human trafficking rallies for the past two months.

"People need to understand that Maryland has some of the weakest laws in the country on human trafficking," says Yates, pointing out that it was not even a crime here until October 2007.

"Many of the clients I know haven't finished ninth grade," Yates said. "So who are they going to go to? How many people are in their world? Most of the girls are allowed to sleep from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. They're told they are only good for making money for sex."

The United Nations estimates there are 27 million sex workers worldwide, bringing in more than $34.5 billion yearly. Sex slavery is mobile, and Maryland's Interstate 95 corridor, I-70 and I-81, take that mobility to a science. Those arteries allow quick jumps from city to suburbs with great discretionary income such as Howard, Montgomery and Anne Arundel counties. "There are four brothels within walking distance of my house," Allert said. "Stopping them is like trying to catch Jell-O."

Brothels, says Allert, are set up in strip malls, nail shops, apartments. And, of course, there are online hookups.

"I can order a boy today, give a hair color, height. I can fly into BWI, pick him up, take a shuttle to a hotel, do my business and fly out," Allert said. "Everything is mobile."

Allert added: "The question is simple. Do you want to live in a society where your daughter believes her worth is her body?"

On Saturday, April 21, from 2 to 4:30 p.m., the Howard County Women's Commission and Advocacy Group Against Slavery and Trafficking (AGAST) will hold a program called Modern Day Slavery: Human Trafficking and Sex Exploitation, at the Bain Center, 5470 Ruth Keeton Way, Columbia 21044. Allert, Yates and a Howard County police officer will speak. Del. Liz Bobo will give the results of six human trafficking bills that have come before the legislature. A documentary produced by Truckers against Trafficking will be shown. For more information, call 410-313-6400.