WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) – A Wilmington high school student is facing federal charges for crimes related to prostitution. Her mother says her daughter is a victim of sex trafficking.
Laura Berte says her daughter Alexandrea, has been missing since July. She contacted law enforcement but says they were reluctant to place her daughter on a missing persons list since she was 19 at the time. Berte said she continued to push a few more times, until a Wilmington police officer helped put Alexandrea on the missing persons national database.
Laura says, that's what's saving her daughter now.
"It took me 3 times to finally convince a wonderful police officer in Wilmington to believe in me and to make sure she was put on that missing persons report," said Laura Berte. "Had she not been put on that, she might still be on the road."
Alexandrea Berte, who just turned 20 this week, was recently pulled over in Tennessee for a traffic stop. When troopers ran her name, they discovered she was on a national missing persons list. However, "Allie" Berte also had three other young women in the car along with a small amount of marijuana, several gift cards and cell phones.
The next thing you know, Laura Berte is getting word that her daughter is being charged federally for sex crimes.
After getting a tip, Laura found her daughter on backpage.com. Like many people, she was unaware of the online adult services site, which experts say makes it easy for traffickers to advertise girls all over the country with anonymity. In 2010, Craigslist put a stop to advertising adult services, but Backpage soon picked it up. Experts say Backpage makes around $20 million a year for these ads. Laura Berte said she discovered that, within five weeks, her daughter had been advertised for sex in at least as many states.
"I feel like a part of my heart is gone, my best friend is gone," said Laura Berte. "There is such a hole in my life. It's just so traumatic for me to honestly comprehend that this is my life and that my daughter has been lured into this kind of lifestyle. I feel like she's been kidnapped. I feel like somebody stole my baby."
Laura Berte said her daughter has a mental capacity of a 9 year old. By that, she means Allie has a number of conditions that prevent her from being self sufficient. Laura says doctors diagnosed Allie with borderline bipolar disorder and ADD. Allie also had a childhood trauma that may have stunted her mental growth. Laura says her daughter's conditions are an explosive combitnation, according to doctors, and together, they act as learning disabilities that prevent her from being capable of making reasonable decisions for her chronological age. Though now 20, Allie was in special classes at Ashley High school, but was still on the honor roll for her level. This would be Allie's senior year of high school.
"My daughter's not a criminal," said Laura Berte. "She doesn't have the mental capacity to come up with this idea on her own. This is bigger than her and bigger than most people in this community know, and it's happening right underneath our noses."
Allie hadn't been at Ashley for long. The Bertes moved here in early 2012 along with Allie's now 18 month old. Laura said Allie was on the right path and making good decisions, but like most teens, she wanted more freedom. Allie was living with her grandparents, but one day left the baby behind to live on her own. She even lived in her car for some time, said Laura.
Now the baby is back with the biological father in Florida.
Laura said it didn't take long to find her daughter's pictures surface on the Internet. She said at first they looked ‘amateurish' but then progressed into more professional pictures with backdrops and lighting.
"I pulled it up and discovered there were very provocative pictures on this website with an ad," said Laura Berte. "The quality led me to believe someone is investing time and money."
National human trafficking experts say one third of all runaways are trafficked or exploited for sex within the first 48 hours after they go missing. This staggering statistic is increased when girls, like Allie, have been exposed to risk factors like previous abuse as a child, diminished mental capacity and single parent homes with no father figure in the home.
"If this happened to me, it can happen to anybody," said Laura Berte. "It really can. I want parents to be aware of the signs. I was not aware of the risk that Allie was at. I did not realize that her childhood traumas made her a perfect target to be a victim of human trafficking. I thought she was recovering, and I was wrong. People need to be aware that this is happening."
Local experts say human trafficking is a real issue in North Carolina. The Tar Heel State happens to be one of the top ten states for human trafficking with contributing factors such as poverty and location. Many girls have been trafficked up and down the East Coast, making North Carolina a drive-thru destination. Women trafficked from New York to Miami have also likely been trafficked through North Carolina.
Also the laws in North Carolina make it a vulnerable state. North Carolina does not see ‘pimping' as a felony, and that means even if someone is busted, they only get about 120 days in jail. However, there's a different story concerning prostitution. In North Carolina, there are no age restrictions on prostitution. So, even if a minor gets arrested for prostitution, they could serve time as an adult. Experts say that's a fault within the system since minors would clearly be trafficking victims.
Allie was 19 at the time of her arrest in Tennessee, even though her mother says she is mentally much younger. She was also driving a rental car, though we do not know if she was the one who was responsible for the rental. At age 19, she may not have been able to rent a car by herself, depending on the rental company. There were three other women in the car at the time – one was an 18 year old from Lumberton. Another woman was from North Carolina and the third was from Kansas. Everyone but Allie was released.
Though Laura Berte is heartbroken this is happening, she is relieved it only took a few months to get her daughter off the streets. At the end of the day, a mother's love is unwavering.
"It is scary and there's a perception out there—in this community, in society—that girls of this age are making the choice," said Laura Berte. "You know, that needs to be changed. My daughter would have never chosen this as a career. And I just feel there are many, many girls out there that are in similar circumstances that are high risk environments that can be prey."
A local hotline number has also been set up to help. Call A Safe Place at 1-855-723-7529.
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