TOPEKA, Kan. (KTMJ) — January is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month to bring awareness to this growing concern globally and here locally.

“What we do know is it’s happening here in Topeka, it’s happening in our county. It’s happening in our state. In fact, it’s happening all over our country,” said Sharon Sullivan, co-chair of the Topeka Shawnee County anti-Human Trafficking Coalition.

Sullivan went on to say that according to the federal government, 1.5 million U.S. citizens are being human trafficked every year.

In Shawnee County, people are being trafficked for both labor and sex. In some cases, someone desperate to feed their family may take what they think is a job as a hostess at a restaurant, only to find out it’s working in a strip club.

“I always say desperate people take desperate risks,” Sullivan said. “So anyone who is vulnerable — and there’s a lot of different ways people can be vulnerable. Economically is often a huge part of that. If you can’t feed your family, you’re going to do what you have to do to feed your family.”

Why don’t you leave? That’s a question many people may ask of someone being trafficked, but Sullivan says it’s not that easy.

“They don’t have the freedom to do that because they’re being kept often through violence, threats to their families or to themselves,” she said. “And a lot of people just don’t have any place else to go if they could escape and so that’s why it’s really important that we are providing services here in our own county.”

Many times people have been victimized from a young age. Sullivan said the federal government believes the average age of entry into prostitution or sex trafficking is 12-14 years old.

“We also know that children are especially high risk just because they’re young. Their brains are not fully developed so they cannot make — they don’t have the experience to make — good decisions all the time,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan says if you suspect someone’s a victim of trafficking, call the national hotline 1-888-373-7888.

If you see something urgent, call 911.

“We would rather you take that risk and help somebody. Even if it’s not human trafficking, it could still be another form of exploitation and abuse,” she said.