Though underground, slavery is still alive and well in America. Human sex trafficking, especially as it relates to children under the age of 18, is a national problem, particularly in large, urban communities.

A recent survey of sheriffs and police departments in 400 counties of varying sizes, released by the National Association of Counties (NACo), revealed that, in 48 percent of counties with populations greater than 250,000, the sex trade is a “major” problem in their community. 86 percent of these counties said the problem existed in some form.

The study also found that in the past two years, 40 percent of counties with populations greater than 250,000 say the problem increased. Smaller counties, with populations of 50,000 to 249,999 reported an 11 percent increase, while 77 percent said it remained the same.

While the NACo survey does not attempt to expose where sex trafficking is the worst, the Urban Institute recently analyzed the underground commercial sex economy in eight major U.S. cities – Atlanta, Dallas, Denver, Kansas City, Miami, Seattle, San Diego and Washington D.C. Across these cities, the underground commercial sex economy was estimated to be worth anywhere between $39.9 and $290 million in 2007. The gap is due to difficulties of conducting research on the topic, but even at the high end, researchers say it is likely to only be the tip of the iceberg.

“This is a difficult problem for many of our larger counties,” Matthew D. Chase, NACo executive director, said in a statement.  “Counties like Los Angeles County and others are making a major effort to help the victims and deal with this problem. It is a community, economic and moral issue that has long-term effects on the children that are impacted by it.”

Solutions to the problem, however, are not simple. Methods of combatting the problem, according to those surveyed, include funding safe shelters where victims can receive comprehensive support and rehabilitation services, as well as stiffer penalties for sellers and buyers

At the state level, efforts are being made to fight the underground sex trade, but more work is needed. The Protected Innocence Challenge, a comprehensive study of state laws related to sex trafficking, ranked states for the laws they have in place to combat the issue. Of the 50 states, only 3 received an “A” ranking: Washington, Tennessee and Louisiana.

To see where your state ranks, view the interactive map. To learn more about the problem, and what is being done to fight it, watch the video below featuring Los Angeles County Supervisor Don Knabe. Download the full NACo report here.


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